Mississippi is breaking the law by violating the due process rights of kids who are getting funneled through its juvenile justice system, the Department of Justice has said. It filed a lawsuit today against the state itself, as well as the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County and judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court for doing exactly that.
“The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law,” Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children’s constitutional rights.”
Among Meridian’s violations, according to the DOJ, are: - Children are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity - or lack thereof - of the alleged offense or probation violation. - Children who are incarcerated prior to adjudication in the Lauderdale County system regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing, in violation of federal constitutional requirements. - Children make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights and without making an informed waiver of those rights. - Lauderdale County does not consistently afford children meaningful representation by an attorney during the juvenile justice process, including in preparation for and during detention, adjudication and disposition hearings.
Mississippi’s policies are having a particularly heavy impact on black and disabled youth. The lawsuit comes, as promised, after city officials refused to respond to an August 10 finding (PDF) by the DOJ outlining the list of Meridian’s violations. The case centers on how youth are treated in the juvenile justice system, but meets at the intersection of education and criminal justice issues. The DOJ said that Mississippi’s handling of its cases amounts to a “school-to-prison pipeline,” a systemic funneling of students out of school and into the criminal justice system.
Across the country, black students are disproportionately disciplined in schools, and are more likely to face frequent and harsh disciplinary actions than students of other races. It’s a problem so egregious and widespread that the Department of Education has even taken up the issue, tasking its Office of Civil Rights with investigating school districts which mete out harsh and racially disparate punishments to students of color.
It’s not just about fairness. It’s an issue of educational equity. Students of color fall far behind white students in high school graduation rates. But studies have shown that students who are disengaged from school are more likely to drop out, and that the more contact students have with law enforcement, school security or otherwise, the more likely they are to become disengaged from school.