DOJ, State Officials Agree to Overhaul of Memphis-area Juvenile Justice System

On Monday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and officials in Memphis, Tenn. entered into an agreement  to overhaul the juvenile justice system within Shelby County, long plagued by reports of detainee mistreatment and systemic oversights.

Photo by Ryan Schill, Center for Sustainable JournalismAn investigative report released by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division earlier this year found numerous due process violations within the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County (JCMSC), with officials unable to provide timely probable cause hearings or required transfer hearings for young detainees. The report also found that JCMSC personnel were holding young people in restraints for much longer than allowed under its own policy, with some detainees held in restraint chairs for five times the facility’s “maximum” duration of 20 minutes.

The memorandum of agreement (MOA) signed by the DOJ and JCMSC will revise the county’s current juvenile justice policies, with JCMSC officials agreeing to adhere to constitutionally backed due process and equal protection protocols. In addition to establishing new performance metrics for disproportionate minority contact (DMC) reform, the MOA also prohibits continued use of restraint chairs and pressure point control tactics by facility personnel.

Other changes created by the MOA include the publication of court forms in Spanish, and insure recorded hearings are audible for accurate transcripts. Under the agreement, a new community outreach program will also be established, which will hold open meetings to inform members of the community about both JCMSC reform and answer questions about local juvenile justice administration.

The reform costs, which include improved medical care and mental health treatment for young detainees, will be charged to the county. Shelby County Juvenile Court System Chief Administrative Officer Larry Scroggs told The New York Times the policy changes may require time to be properly implemented.

“County government is like all local governments, which is to say it’s really financially strapped at this point,” he said. “We have to figure out how to do it incrementally.”

Photo by Ryan Schill |

DOJ: Sunlight, Lawsuit to Close Miss. School-to-Prison Pipeline

Meridian courthouseThe U.S. Department of Justice says a school-to-prison pipeline that runs through schools, the city police department and juvenile courts threatens children in Meridian, Miss. The school system is negotiating a new set of rules with the DOJ. The city, county, youth court and state of Mississippi, meanwhile, have just gotten hit with a federal lawsuit, and attention that may have already changed their ways.

“We filed this lawsuit because we have to,” said U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, in a public telephone conference on Oct. 25, the day after his department sued the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the county Youth Court judges and Mississippi’s Division of Youth Services claiming that the four agencies work together to ignore children’s due process rights and incarcerate them for minor infractions.

“Children are being incarcerated in the juvenile detention center for days at a time after they are arrested, without a probable cause hearing, by the Youth Court,” said Austin.

schoolppipe_series“We found that children have been incarcerated for being suspended from school for things like dress code violations or talking back to teachers,” he continued.

The DOJ charges that the Meridian police arrest kids on the schools’ word, without looking into probable cause that the young person has committed a crime; and that kids are held sometimes for days without any hearing or meaningful legal help. Once the youth hit probation, they are offered contracts that they have no chance of understanding, the DOJ alleges, nor is there a proper probation hearing.

This pipeline disproportionately swallows up black children and children who have disabilities, the DOJ also said.  Their findings came at the end of an eight-month investigation.

Austin said they brought the findings to the state and local agencies in August 2012 and invited them to negotiations. “Unfortunately all of the defendants decided that they did not want to do this,” he said.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


Lauderdale County Attorney Richard Barry did not immediately return requests for comment on the lawsuit. Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton is out of town.  The two, however, released a letter in August claiming the federal investigation was faulty and that, on privacy grounds, they could not cooperate with the federal government’s request for juvenile court records.

But, said Jackson-based Assistant U.S. Attorney Al Jernigan, “shining a light on this problem has done an awful lot to cause some immediate changes … there have been some substantial changes in police practice and the referrals from the school system.”

Indeed, Meridian mother Stephanie Stringfellow, also on the conference call, said she knew of a case that very morning of a child getting a probable cause hearing.

But overall, she worried that “it’s not going to work like everyone’s been saying on the phone.” She pointed out that if children get suspended from school “that gives them time to get in trouble.”

Since suspension is something that happens under the school roof, not via police and courts, it might come to an earlier resolution than the charges about cops and courts.

The new case deals with what happens to youth from the minute police get involved, through the police, court, and any jail time or probation. Schools are not a part of the new lawsuit.

Instead, the Meridian school system is under federal supervision dating from a 1960s desegregation order. In 2010, the DOJ approached the schools about allegations of a phone call to the police every time there was a physical altercation on campus, and of terminating black employees. The DOJ and the school system are in talks about what kind of orderly, predictable discipline rules should apply on campus. Since 2010, a new superintendent has taken over the system and written a new student handbook.

“What has been proposed is very complex and deals with almost any issue you can imagine,” said Jernigan, explaining that the schools have been cooperative. Though nothing final has been yet published, he said he foresees part of the deal will put monitors into the school system.

The new and old cases are like two puzzle pieces that ideally would fit closely together and make a full picture. But, clarified Austin, “one party [the school district] has decided to sit down and talk to us and move this thing forward in a constructive way. The other side has decided they don’t want to cooperate with us.”

It’s not clear how long it will take for the DOJ, Mississippi, Lauderdale, Meridian and the Youth Court to sit at the same table.   The defendants must now respond to the federal lawsuit, and depending on how and what both sides argue, the case could take months, if not years.

Sexual Trauma Marks Girls’ Path to Juvenile Justice System

Crystal Contreras, who served five years in a juvenile justice facility in California, is now studying sociology in college and volunteering with foster kids.

When Crystal Contreras was seven and living in Los Angeles, her mother put her in the care of someone Contreras saw as a father figure. Instead, he pressured the little girl for sex. For the next three years, until she was 10, the man raped her regularly, often creeping into the house at night without her mother’s knowledge.

“I never said nothing to my mom,” Contreras told during an interview in July. “I was scared he would kill her or hurt her or hurt the animals that I had. I felt like I was protecting her. But what I did – I started acting out.”

Contreras, now 21 and in college, completed a five-year term at a juvenile detention facility in California last year, she said. Her history of sexual trauma echoes the stories of tens of thousands of girls who find themselves in the juvenile justice system, a history that advocates and professionals in the field say the states and federal government must take into account when designing rehabilitation programs to meet girls’ needs.

While the number of girls who had contact with the juvenile justice system in 2010 equaled only about 40 percent of the number of boys, girls are more likely to be detained for minor offenses related to their underage status, like truancy or running away, according to a report released Tuesday by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy. Less than 10 percent of juvenile arrests for violent crimes involved girls, the report said.

“Overall, the juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to serve girls effectively, having failed to implement the reforms called for by a growing body of research on the needs of the girls in its care,” said the report, “Improving the Juvenile Justice System for Girls: Lessons from the States.”

Malika Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told an interagency gathering of federal officials in Washington, D.C., last month that the so-called school-to-prison pipeline applies mainly to boys. For girls, Saar said, the biggest funnel into the prison system is sexual abuse.

Liz Watson, a co-author of the Georgetown report, echoed Saar’s description.

“What really stands out about girls’ particular pathway into the system is that very often, the girls are in the system for things like running away and truancy, and sometimes, being picked up for prostitution, which is really exploitation for these girls,” Watson said. “So the reasons they get into the system are gender bias and exploitation and abuse.”

To add insult to injury, she said, “Once they’re there, girls have harsher penalties than boys for status offenses.”

Acting Asst. Attorney General Mary Lou Leary (left) and Acting Administrator of the OJJDP Melodee Hanes (second to left) listen to testimony from formerly incarcerated women and their advocates about the experience of girls in the juvenile justice system during the quarterly meeting of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention last month.

Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, 23, testified about her detention experiences in California and Nevada before a federal interagency committee, the Coordinating Council of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in Washington, D.C., in September.

The council, an independent body created under the authority of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, meets quarterly to coordinate the program efforts of federal government agencies. It includes cabinet members from the departments of Labor, Health, Housing and Urban Development, Education and Homeland Security.

Last month marked the first time since 2000 that the council had met to discuss the issue of girls in the juvenile justice system. The meeting 12 years ago led the U.S. Department of Justice to create the National Girls Study Group, a multi-year research effort into strategies for keeping girls from entering the system, Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator for Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, told the council.

Another outcome of the 2000 meeting was the creation of the National Girls Institute within the federal juvenile justice office in the U.S. Department of Justice, a clearinghouse for research and technical assistance, Hanes said. The institute recently released its own findings from a series of national “listening sessions” with girls in the system, their families and other stakeholders.

Although most cabinet-level members were not present at September’s meeting, their agency representatives listened intently as field professionals and women who had been incarcerated as girls testified about their experiences with the system.

Pettigrew told the council she was trafficked as a minor, coerced into sex and kept captive.

“I was sent to the juvenile justice system for a crime that technically, according to the law, I did not have the ability or consent to commit,” Pettigrew said. “I was a victim of child abuse but I was the one put behind bars.”

Watson calls girls like Pettigrew and Contreras “the walking wounded” who are often re-traumatized in detention. Despite her history of sexual abuse, Pettigrew found herself in a facility with no doors on the showers or the toilets, and male staff members to watch the girls. The lack of doors in showers and toilets comes up regularly in descriptions of facilities by advocates and girls.

Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew (center) speaking about her experience in the juvenile justice system in front of the federal interagency Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in Washington D.C. last month. She hopes to attend college in D.C.

“Understanding the pathway for girls, and really the history of exploitation and abuse, is key to being able to undertake reform efforts that are really responsive to girls’ needs,” Watson told

The Georgetown report came out of a meeting of experts and professionals last year where, Watson said, few knew of innovations by states other than their own. “It’s extremely important that states that are interested in reforms have the examples of other states to work on so they’re not re-creating the wheel,” Watson said.

The report outlines reform efforts by Connecticut, Florida and one California county, and offers recommendations for the federal government that echo those presented to the coordinating council by Pettigrew and other advocates.

The federal government must fund research and evaluation of girls’ programs, improve the assessment and data collection tools available for girls, and encourage states to develop programs that are geared toward girls’ particular needs and that take into account their history of sexual trauma, trafficking and exploitation, they say.

Back in Los Angeles, Contreras is now taking college sociology courses, working for a major health care organization and volunteering at a program for foster youth. During her last couple of years in detention, she said, she realized she had to take care of herself if she wanted to succeed.

Pettigrew is applying to undergraduate programs and trying to collect funds for college. It’s hard sharing her story in a roomful of people, she said, especially when few share her history. But she needs to do it, she said, so more people can understand what it’s like to be a girl in the system.

Photos by Kaukab Jhumra Smith

Safe Start Center Provides Best Practices for Working with Young Victims of Trauma

The Safe Start Center recently released a publication that outlines the best practices for youth service providers working with children that have experienced victimization or severe trauma.

Victimization and Trauma Experienced by Children and Youth: Implications for Legal Advocates” addresses numerous topics, including the best available assessments and treatments for trauma-related stress in young people. The brief, the seventh entry in “Moving from Evidence to Action: The Safe Start Center Series on Children Exposed to Violence,” contains suggestions for experts in both the juvenile justice field as well as the field of child welfare, providing attorneys and court-appointed advocates with specialized information about trauma-informed practices.

The brief lists several symptoms of traumatic stress for workers in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems to note, in addition to multiple screening and assessment instruments commonly used to address past traumatic experiences and exposure to violence by young people.

The Safe Start Center notes numerous emerging, evidence-supported interventions, such as Child-Parent Psychotherapy (CPP) and Trauma Affect Regulation: Guide for Education and Therapy (TARGET) as promising programs for the treatment and rehabilitation of young people effected by trauma and victimization. The publication addresses efforts on the state and local level by organizations that have sought to implement trauma-informed services into juvenile justice and child welfare frameworks, concluding with a list of suggestions for the promotion of policy reforms in legal practices.

The Safe Start Center, a project of the United States Department of Justice, is funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

School-to-Jailhouse Pipeline Not Only in Mississippi

prison and flagThis story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity

Meridian is not alone under the DOJ magnifying glass. In a somewhat similar case in Tennessee, the DOJ says the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County has failed to inform children of the charges against them and of failing to make sure the children know what their legal rights are ahead of questioning. Like Meridian, the juvenile court is also accused of failing to hold timely hearings.

There are varying definitions of a school-to-prison pipeline, said Jim Freeman, senior attorney at Advancement Project, a nonprofit legal action group that fights racial injustice.

“How I like to define it,” Freeman said, “is the use of policies and practices that increase the likelihood that young people become incarcerated.”

That includes at-school arrests for minor behavioral incidents, as well as what he calls more indirect actions, like suspensions, expulsions or references to juvenile court or alternative schools.

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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.


Such practices have grown in the last 10 to 15 years, he said. “It really started out mostly in very low income communities of color, the schools in those districts. It’s expanded pretty dramatically beyond that.”

In a high-profile Delaware case in 2009, a 6-year-old was almost suspended for 45 days for having his Cub Scout knife at school. The school board intervened to cut that to three to five days.

The combination of zero-tolerance school rules, themselves fueled by safety fears, and the kind of high-stakes testing required by the federal government “create some of these dynamics,” Freeman contended.

schoolppipe_seriesMississippi was under the high-stakes testing regime of the federal No Child Left Behind law until it won a waiver in July 2012.

Low-performing schools are under such pressure to meet testing benchmarks that some neglect the education of some struggling students, even pushing them out of school, reports suggest. Data compiled in a 2010 Advancement Project report finds that in several U.S. states, there was a link between the adoption of high-stakes testing and increased use of suspensions and expulsions.

“Race has certainly played a role in where we have elected to implement these policies and practices,” Freeman added, “I think the data is pretty clear.”

By mid-October Meridian could land in court because of the federal investigators’ allegations. The DOJ threatened to file suit by then if the city and county and state agencies don’t start “meaningful negotiations” with the federal agency.

Click here to read our in-depth story on the school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian, Miss.

Meridian Struggles with School-to-Prison Allegations

This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity

Lionel Townsend will turn 14 in September and a few months after that he will be able to return to school, ending a year of exile.

Lionel admits he got into fights multiple times at Magnolia Middle School. When he was charged with vandalizing a school bus security camera, he was booted from school. He fought again in a community day program. The county Youth Court eventually put him on probation and an order to stay at home with an ankle monitor.

But the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is alleging the juvenile justice system is so faulty it amounts to a “school-to-prison pipeline” in the Townsends’ home of Meridian.

“If you do wrong, you got to pay,” insisted Lionel’s mother, Ella Townsend, speaking in the living room of the home she shares with her mother, Lionel and four of the boy’s siblings. Lionel listens quietly, a skinny boy, who grins when attention is turned to him, or he’s teased about the sparkly blue earring studded in his ear. “But “that was harsh punishment,” she said, “I feel like they were sort of out of order.”

Townsend says her son’s ankle monitor was so sensitive it went off if he went in the back yard.  The young man is rid of it now, but not before he gouged off the speaker, causing what Townsend said the court assessed as $1,500 in damage.

She worries if Lionel makes another mistake, he will end up in prison with adults, where he will learn the criminal trade.

The Justice Department says it has probable cause to believe the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County routinely and repeatedly incarcerate children for school disciplinary infractions, as outlined in an Aug. 10 open letter, at the end of an eight-month investigation. Their letter is addressed to the city and county, the county's two Youth Court judges, as well as the state Division of Youth Services, but not the Meridian school system.

The letter said infractions such as defiance, disrespect, dress code violations or cursing led to a police ride to the county Youth Court. City police in closed-door interviews called themselves a “taxi service” from school to jail, the DOJ writes. “MPD officers may subjectively believe that they are acting appropriately,” reads the letter, but the DOJ argues the police are wrong to automatically arrest children referred by the schools, instead of investigating and determining probable cause themselves. The police, they charge, do not assess “whether the alleged conduct qualifies as an arrestable offense.”

Once in custody, the Youth Court fails to give children speedy hearings, the DOJ says, by holding court only two days per week, thus on weekends and holidays pushing some children over a 48-hour threshold. Furthermore, “children and their guardians consistently report that they are not always appointed an attorney for detention or adjuration hearings,” reads the letter, adding an allegation that the public defender in the court does not provide “meaningful or effective representation.”

In cases of probation, children are inappropriately signing probation contracts that they do not comprehend, says the DOJ, and there “is no evidence that Lauderdale County and DYS [Mississippi Division of Youth Services] ever provide constitutionally required probable cause hearings.”  DYS youth counselors — the DOJ calls them “probation officers” — in practice have “absolute discretion” to determine if there is a probation violation and what the consequence will be, according to allegations.

The federal agency also claims that African-American children are disproportionately suspended or expelled and that Meridian children who have disabilities are expelled or given long suspensions at a rate almost seven times higher than the state as a whole, though it does not quote detailed statistics.

The DOJ said it sought Youth Court records to supplement site visits, and interviews with police, DYS staff and community members. They were denied access locally on privacy grounds. In a written comment, a Mississippi attorney general spokesperson explained, “we have said that the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) will cooperate in any lawful manner with the DOJ investigation.  However, state law, including Mississippi Code Section 43-21-261, prohibits the AOC from providing to DOJ copies of confidential youth court records without a court order.”

But the city of Meridian and Lauderdale County reject the charges, accusing the federal agency of basing their allegations on only “a few” cases and “unsubstantiated” claims, in a letter they wrote to the DOJ, which was released in response to media queries to the police and the Youth Court.

The findings of the DOJ are “one-sided and reflect, in our opinion, the inexperience and unprofessionalism of your investigating representatives as to basic criminal procedure,” write Meridian City Attorney Ronnie Walton and attorney for Lauderdale County, J. Richard Barry.

Youth Court judges Veldore Young and Frank Coleman “categorically deny any systematic violation of any child’s constitutional rights and have faithfully followed the laws of this State and will continue to protect the confidentiality of our children’s youth court records,” reads the attorneys’ Aug. 23 response.

They suggest the DOJ’s head civil rights lawyer is already biased against Meridian, accusing Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez of running to the media instead of talking with judges; and of publicly criticizing Meridian schools.

They say the DOJ letter contains “outright untruths where it is stated that those judges would not cooperate” with the investigation by turning over juvenile court records. The attorneys say the judges do not have the legal right to hand over those papers.

After numerous requests for comment, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice wrote in an email that, “protecting the constitutional rights of youth is a top priority of the Justice Department. The department’s Civil Rights Division is tasked with ensuring and acting to protect the civil rights of children. If we find that a school district or juvenile justice system is depriving youth of their rights, we will not hesitate to act.

New School Year

Last year, Alvin Taylor was hired as Meridian school superintendent after several rapid changes of leadership. Much of the top administration turned over at the same time, he said, and his new team brought in new policies and procedures.

“I can’t speak on what happened before June 1, 2011,” said Taylor, referring to the day his work started.

Taylor’s 2011-2012 school year student handbooks lay out dozens of rule infractions and the punishments. Police only get involved, Taylor said, for three infractions named by Mississippi state law: weapons, drugs or serious violent acts.

A schoolyard fight is not considered a serious violent act, Taylor said, but gang fights or assaulting a teacher for example, is.

When school staff determine one of those three infractions has happened, said Taylor, a call to police must first be approved by himself or the assistant superintendent of student services.

He said less than 1 percent of youth get arrested in a given year in his roughly 6,200-student system. There are also around 60 or so expulsions every year, he said. Taylor said that expulsion rate is lower than average, according to his research.

As for the DOJ allegations that children who have disabilities — including learning disabilities — are disproportionally ousted from school, Taylor said, “all those accusations stem from 2009. And I can’t speak on what they did back then. I can tell you that’s not the situation now.”

In 2009, Meridian High School enrolled 1,625 students, according to the latest figures available in a federal Department of Education database. The same database says that among 205 Meridian High School students who have disabilities, there were 145 instances of children getting more than one out-of-school suspension.  The student population overall was 86.8 percent African-American, and black students represented 96 percent of all out-of-school suspensions and 100 percent of the 10 reported expulsions.

Long-Smoldering Fire

The DOJ received the very first complaints about Meridian in 2005 from NAACP activist Randle Jennings. He was surprised when the city cut funding to a baseball program for at-risk youth he ran and considered very successful. He started looking at schools and asked why more than 90 percent of the teachers were white, given that there were five historically black colleges or universities within one hundred miles, and more than 90 percent of Meridian's students were black?

“We realized something was going on,” said Jennings, now the county NAACP education chair.  “We smelled smoke,” but did not have an explanation for it. He sent the data about teacher and student demographics to the DOJ, and admits he did not know what they might find.

Five years later, in May 2010, the federal Department of Justice sent a letter to Lauderdale County’s and Meridians’ official attorneys. They were asking for records about school discipline and police involvement in schools. In the following months, the DOJ also participated in at least two public meetings where they asked area residents to come lodge their complaints about school discipline and the law.

Jennings is sure a pipeline runs through Meridian. “We have a concern for our children, especially the next generation because we have seen two generations be destroyed … [we] systematically need a plan so our children aren’t shoved in that pipeline.”

Lauderdale County juvenile inmates used to land in a detention center on the edge of town. However, it’s closed now and since the beginning of 2012, minors have been bused to a center some 70 miles away in Rankin County. Lauderdale’s center had been the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center over conditions of incarceration.

Get Rid of the Problem

The Love City Fellowship, a church in Meridian, hosted a public meeting on school discipline and the law in August 2010. The church, the DOJ and the Southern Poverty Law Center invited parents to come to the afternoon meeting to talk about suspensions and arrests from city schools. Some church members are still collecting stories from friends and neighbors and urging parents to talk to the DOJ.

“Some of the rules that are in place do not put the child in mind first,” said Senior Pastor Lamorris Richardson. “Instead of having to deal with the problem and find a solution, it’s more ’get rid of the problem.’”

The city school system is separately in a dispute with the DOJ that is very closely related to the newly-announced allegations against the city and county. The school system is a party in a 1960s-era federal desegregation order. The DOJ reopened that case in 2010 in an effort to investigate the discipline complaints and other complaints that the district was allegedly unfairly terminating African-American educators.

In that case, besides asking for data, the DOJ asked for access to visit schools and interview staff in 2010. The school district initially rejected those DOJ requests, and the DOJ responded by asking the federal court to order access and document release. According to court filings, the school argued the demand to visit and interview staff and law enforcement officers is too broad and amounts to “fishing” for information, as does a DOJ request to inspect databases and documents on site at schools. That battle over visits, interviews and inspections is ongoing in court and forms the background to the DOJ’s August letter and threat to sue the city and county.

Pastor Richardson said his city needs a school board picked by the community. Now it is named by the mayor and confirmed by city council. Though, according to Elizabeth McDonald, spokeswoman for the school district, the board members each represent different areas of the city.

The board is currently made up of three whites and two blacks.

“This city has not moved in how many decades? … Five decades?” asked pastor Betty Alford, also of Love City Fellowship, comparing treatment of African-Americans now to the 1960s.

Richardson added, “No community, in 2012, should be still dealing with practices that applies [only] to a certain group, a certain community where kids rights are not being protected in school. We should be way past this kind of bias.”

But Meridian children like Lionel are out of Superintendent Taylor’s hands. Once a child is expelled, the child is not a “student” and the school board is not obligated to instruct him.

That being said, the schools, in partnership with the city and local groups, will this year start a pilot program for expelled students that provides character and academic education, as well as technical options. It will have 18 slots and is set to start in September. That will be the only full-time educational opportunity for students expelled from school.

As for Lionel, Ella is teaching him at home until he goes back to school, though she said it is not enough. “I can do stuff from what I know, but I’m not a trained teacher,” she said. “He needs to eat his material, he needs to study and learn.”

Click here for other examples of the school to prison pipeline around the country.

Tennessee County Researching Juvenile Justice Fixes

The juvenile justice system in Shelby County, Tenn. is entering its fourth year of federal inspection, now with a thick report about alleged problems.  A full remediation plan for the court could be drafted in the next three months.

The Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County denies due process to youth, according to an April, 2012 report by the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The investigation finds probable cause to believe that some youth are not adequately notified of the charges against them, are not advised of their Miranda rights, do not enjoy timely probable cause hearings and are sent to adult court on only cursory inquiries. The look at 66,000 court records also, the DOJ argues, shows that black children are treated less leniently than white peers.

“The [juvenile] court has been engaged with DOJ since the investigation was opened on August 11, 2009,” said Larry Scroggs, the court’s chief administrative officer and chief council in a written statement, provided in response to a telephone call for comment.

Some changes have already been made, like the creation of a new kind of affidavit to formally inform children and guardians about charges. Others are under discussion between the court and the DOJ, according to Scroggs, who said the goal is a “written agreement that will govern the process of completing remedial measures to bring the court in compliance with all applicable standards.” The document is expected to be in place by this fall, he wrote.

Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks first reported issues to the federal agency in 2007, though she traces the problem of mistreatment of black children back to the 1960s.

She accuses the DOJ and the court talks of leaving out the people most affected, “the families of the juveniles” in the system. She said families want to know what the DOJ is going to do about the allegations, especially the ones that touch on race. The county commission happens to be formally absent from the talks as well.

“The county commission has historically rubber-stamped whatever the court has asked for,” Brooks, herself a former employee of the court, admitted. “Now it’s a little bit different and we have a very contentious situation going on here.”

Reforms under discussion, said Scroggs, include speedy probable cause hearings by telephone, asking the county public defender to take over juvenile defense to make it fully independent from the juvenile court administration, stepping up administration of Miranda rights, publishing court forms in Spanish, and considering a safe house or respite center for juveniles to stay upon release if they cannot go back to their homes. Besides that, they are “reviewing and researching statutory and procedural rules and best practices for detention hearings and transfer hearings, aimed at reinforcing juveniles’ due process rights.”

But none of that is a done deal, said Brooks, because “no funds have been allocated for anything.” The commission “doesn’t have a clue” what’s going on between the DOJ and the court, she said.

The juvenile court is operationally autonomous, but mainly depends on county government funding for operations. Brooks thinks adequate representation of children alone would take more staff and cost millions of dollars.

The population of the county juvenile detention center is falling, however. The county juvenile lockup holds 27 children as of Sept. 7, 2012, against an average population over the last two years of 45 to 50 youth. The population has shrunk, Scroggs said, due to two programs. One shifts minor on-campus offenses to a probation-type program housed at school instead of in the court system. The other urges officers to write summons instead of making arrests for seven minor offenses.

The court has an external ally, however. This year, the juvenile court was designated a Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiatives site by Annie E. Casey Foundation. That means the foundation is helping the court reduce unnecessary confinement of youth, improve public safety, reduce racial disparities, save money and stimulate reforms.

The AECF learned about the DOJ investigation after it started working in Shelby County. And the DOJ does not affect what the foundation does anyway, explained Gail Mumford, senior associate with AECF’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

“We’re not there to get them out of that position,” said Mumford, “but we believe by engaging the strategy contained in JDAI they will be positioned to come into full compliance.”

At any JDAI site, workers help stakeholders align what they’re actually doing with what they want to do.

“We’re going to do the work that we generally do,” said Mumford. “We’re just partners to help them [Shelby County] improve the juvenile justice system of delivery.”

Funding Opportunity: Become a Reclaiming Futures Site

Reclaiming Futures announced that the DOJ, OJP and OJJDP are seeking applications for $1.325 million in funding (over 4 years) to spread and implement the Reclaiming Futures model. More specifically, grants will be given to build the capacity of states, courts, local governments and Indian tribal governments to develop and establish Reclaiming Futures' juvenile drug courts.

From the request for proposals:

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is pleased to announce that it is seeking applications for funding under the FY 2012 Juvenile Drug Courts/Reclaiming Futures program. This program furthers the Department’s mission by building the capacity of states, state and local courts, units of local government, and Indian tribal governments to develop and establish juvenile drug courts for substance abusing juvenile offenders.

For more information and to apply, please click here. The deadline to apply is May 16, 2012, at 11:59 ET.

U.S Child Pornography Cases Rise Dramatically

Nationwide, child pornography cases increased 330 percent from 1999 to 2009, according to a recent article in the Washington Examiner.

"Before the Internet, child pornography had almost been eradicated," U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride told a reporter for the paper.

More than nine million U.S. computers were identified as having shared child pornography between October 2008 and October 2009, an August report by the Justice Department says. Now, the FBI handles more than 2,500 new child pornography cases a year.

"A lot of people never would have gone into an erotic video or magazine shop and asked to see child pornography," criminal defense lawyer Mike Sprano said. "But when it's just one click away on their computer, it seems to be more tempting for people."

One way law enforcement has ramped up efforts to catch sexual predators who target children is with a 2006 Justice Department initiative called Project Safe Childhood, which has placed prosecutors who target child-exploitation offenses in each federal judicial district. The FBI also has devoted more resources to the crime, creating task forces to work with and train local authorities and by establishing its Innocent Images National Initiative to centralize evidence collection and analysis.

A sexual behavior consultant at John Hopkins University believes this trend proves that the desire to view sexual images of children is more prevalent than once thought.

Did Georgia Meet Sex Offender Registry Deadline? Thousands of Federal Dollars Could Be At Stake

It remains a mystery whether Georgia met a critical deadline this week to comply with a federal ruling known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

“We can’t say for sure at this point, we have packets arriving in droves,” said United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Spokeswoman Kara McCarthy. “It may take up to three months for us to go through all of the packets we have received.”

Wednesday was the deadline for the peach state and more than 30 others to implement the federal mandate that requires states to establish a sex offender registry for adults and juveniles that connects with a national registry.

“To date, 14 states, nine tribes and one territory have substantially implemented Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) requirements,” said Linda Baldwin, Director of DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) Office, which administers SORNA. “We are reviewing as quickly as possible the materials submitted.”

DOJ has confirmed that Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming have substantially implemented SORNA, along with nine native American tribes and the U.S. territory of Guam.

States, tribes and territories that did not meet DOJ’s deadline this week will be denied different amounts of government funding for the year. The Walsh Act specifies that those that failed to substantially implement SORNA by the deadline would be subject to a 10 percent reduction in the amount awarded to the jurisdiction under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. Jurisdictions often use these formula grants to improve state and local criminal justice programs with an emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders. The Act also permits states and territories to potentially recoup the 10 percent reduction in a future fiscal year if it is demonstrated that these funds will be used to implement SORNA programs. Sources tell that $750,000, or 10 percent of the estimated $7.5 million of the JAG money allotted to Georgia this fiscal year could be at stake.

Sources with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) and Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have declined comment on the matter, with the latter deferring to a response from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. “We’re awaiting a response from the governor’s office, DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore said. “We can’t comment until we hear back from them.”

CJCC Executive Director Barbara Lynn Howell did not immediately reply to requests for interviews, but indicated earlier this week by telephone that state officials had been assessing the cost of implementing the registry system versus the potential penalties faced for compliance failure. Sources close to have confirmed that the price tag for implementing the system could cost more than the revenue lost.

Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ) Staff Attorney Ann Kirkhope said in late 2007 or early 2008, shortly after the federal law was passed, a task force was assembled in Georgia to study the issue. The group, comprised of the Council, along with the GBI, Georgia Sheriff's Council and other stakeholder groups, met 10 to 15 times, she said, to discuss how the statute could be carried out in the state.

"We discussed the advantages and disadvantages to being in compliance," she said. "There was so much to consider; the infrastructure had to be in place. We knew there would be a lot of changes from what we currently do [in reference to sex offenders in Georgia]. We discussed what personnel would be needed, what technology and equipment would have to be in place to make the systems in all the different counties compatible. We knew that Byrne Grant money would be at stake but that it could cost way more to implement the SORNA requirements."

Kirkhope said the group eventually disbanded after it reached a point where the work of the task force was only viable if the "powers-that-be decided Georgia needed to be in compliance," she said. "That was not a decision that we could make. Only the governor's office can do that."

Even if Georgia chose to submit an application for compliance in time for the recent July deadline,  she said, sex offender guideline changes would have to be drafted into a bill and approved by the state legislature to become law.

"It still has to go through the legislative process," she said.

Also at issue with Walsh Act enforcement are concerns about whether juveniles should be required to be on a registry list at all. In fact, a document published as part of DOJ’s testimony in a hearing on the Walsh Act indicated that several states cited “juvenile requirements” as a barrier to complying with the Act.

SORNA sets minimum requirements for who to include on the registry and how long to include them. SORNA mandates that certain juvenile sex offenders be included, although a supplemental guideline issued by DOJ permits states to keep juvenile registrants on a non-public list.

Supporters of the sex offender registry legislation argue that non-compliance allows "dangerous" sex offenders to find the gaps and move around accordingly. Critics, however, believe that the danger in non-compliant jurisdictions is exaggerated. During an interview for an unrelated article earlier this week former DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt affirmed that he believes both sides have strong arguments.

“I’m not sure the stance that the governor and DJJ are taking on that, so I prefer not to comment on that in particular,” he said. “But, I will say with sex offenders you have got to be very careful. You don’t want to stain somebody for life, so I think it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, public safety is a great issue. If it’s determined that [a juvenile be listed on a registry] is what’s best for public safety, that has to be a priority.”

Kirkhope said the juvenile issue came up during the task force meetings.

"There was plenty of discussion on that; not just in our state," she said. "When we read the comments from other states, a number of organizations and agencies were speaking out about juvenile names being on a registry. Many of the states that immediately complied with the Walsh Act already had similar systems where juveniles are listed for certain higher level offenses. Ohio is one of those states."

This July deadline was the third in the slow move toward Walsh Act compliance. All states were granted a blanket extension by Attorney General Eric Holder in July of 2009. States were allowed to ask individually for extensions in 2010, and all but the initial four compliant states received one. will continue to update you as our request for interviews and requests are met.