Tennessee is doing what Mississippi could not—committing itself to reforming its juvenile justice system. This week Shelby County, Tennessee entered into an unprecedented agreement (PDF) with the Department of Justice to reform its juvenile courts and address serious abuses the federal government identified over the course of its longterm investigation.
The agreement, announced Tuesday, is the first time that the Justice Department used its authority under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to address juvenile justice abuses to trigger systemic reforms. “This first of its kind agreement reflects a powerful commitment to upholding constitutional rights of all children appearing before the Juvenile Court,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a statement. “We hope that juvenile courts around the country review this agreement to ensure that they are protecting the constitutional rights of children.”
The agreement comes after the Department of Justice announced its findings this spring into the state of Shelby’s juvenile justice system, finding that Shelby youth courts failed to protect kids’ basic constitutional rights. The DOJ found that the courts were not adequately informing youth about court proceedings and requirements to appear for delinquency hearings; failed to protect young people from incriminating themselves or protect youth’s due process rights. And along the way, the Shelby County juvenile court system was disproportionately cracking down on African-American kids.
But, said Perez, Shelby County has notably stepped up to proactively address its problems. “We commend the court, led by Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, for taking this bold step toward reform,” Perez said. The new agreement will address these problems, and put a specific focus on reducing racial disparities in the juvenile justice process.
Meanwhile, the DOJ’s parallel investigation into the abuses of the juvenile justice system in Mississippi resulted in a federal lawsuit filed in October, when the DOJ challenged the state of Mississippi and the city of Meridian for running a school-to-prison pipeline which shuttled kids out of schools and straight into the waiting arms of the criminal justice system, which denied kids’ constitutional rights.