By KIM SEVERSON
Published: December 17, 2012
For teenagers, especially African-Americans, getting in trouble in Shelby County, Tenn., has long been a particularly bad idea.
Federal investigators in 2009 began investigating juvenile justice in the county, which includes Memphis. They found that black teenagers were twice as likely as white teenagers to be detained and were sent to adult criminal court for minor infractions far more often than whites.
Black or white, teenagers locked up by the county attempted suicide at record rates and were sometimes strapped to deep, wide restraint chairs and left alone up to five times longer than the law allowed.
They languished over long weekends without proper hearings, were not read their Miranda rights and received crucial court documents just before hearings, if they received them at all, investigators found.
“What we saw was an assembly line with very little quality assurance,” said Tom Perez, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
On Monday, the county and the Justice Department signed an extensive agreement to overhaul the county’s juvenile justice system. The department and juvenile advocates called the agreement the first of its kind in the nation and a signal that momentum is growing to find new ways to treat teenagers who break the law.
“We’re hoping our agreement will serve as a template for other jurisdictions,” Mr. Perez said.
The results of the federal investigation in Shelby County, which were first made public last spring, and Monday’s agreement underscore a new approach to shoring up the nation’s juvenile justice system.
“Early on, we decided it would be best to pursue a settlement agreement if at all possible,” said Larry Scroggs, chief administrative officer of the Shelby County juvenile court system.
The aim, reformers say, is to keep low-level offenders out of juvenile lockups and adult criminal court, and instead build up community programs that might better rehabilitate them.
“We’ve simply been setting up a system where they learn from adults,” Mr. Perez said. “It’s dumb law enforcement, and it’s often dumb fiscal policy, and it’s wrong from a basic human perspective.”
Notable efforts are already happening in a few major cities like Washington, Chicago and New York. Under a new program in New York called the Close to Home initiative, for example, city teenagers who are in large juvenile facilities in other parts of the state will be sent to improved programs in their own neighborhoods.
“We have got to make better decisions about whether the heavy touch or the light touch is required and focus on how do we get them back into communities and families,” said Gail Mumford, a senior associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group. The foundation has been working with 184 counties, including Shelby, to develop alternatives to incarceration for teenagers.
As states are looking for ways to cut costs, jailing teenage offenders is increasingly becoming a less attractive option, said Mark Soler, the executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a juvenile-justice watchdog group.
Also, the number of crimes committed by teenagers and children has been dropping, he said. Researchers are not exactly sure why, but they point to several contributing factors, including fewer arrests for minor crimes, fewer children living in poverty, more diversion programs and the decriminalization of marijuana in some states.
In 2009, there were 1.5 million juvenile delinquency cases in the United States. At their peak, in 1997, there were 1.9 million cases, according to the Justice Department. The decline was greater for white teenagers than for black teenagers: From 2000 to 2009, the number of whites in delinquency cases fell by almost 20 percent, the number of blacks by less than 3 percent.
Still, many juvenile court systems remain troubled. In October, the Justice Department brought a lawsuit against Meridian, Miss., and Lauderdale County, saying the school system was running a “school-to-prison pipeline” in which students were jailed for infractions as minor as talking back to teachers or wearing socks that violated school dress codes.
Some students had been shipped 80 miles to a juvenile detention center without probable cause or legal representation.
In the Memphis case, as many as 4,100 teenagers were once formally charged each year, and nearly 200 of those cases were sent to adult criminal court. But the numbers are dropping. In 2010, 151 teenagers were transferred to adult criminal court. This year, the number will be around 100, said Mr. Scroggs, of the Shelby County juvenile court.
Some teenagers whose offenses are not serious are now issued summonses instead of being hauled to detention to await a hearing, and a model in-school program of tutoring, mentoring and counseling has been keeping students who commit minor offenses out of juvenile court altogether. Conditions inside the facilities have improved as well, federal investigators said. Three restraint chairs, for example, have been removed, and better suicide prevention protocols are in place.
But the county will have to do more to avoid being sued by the Justice Department. Under the 42-page agreement the county signed Monday, significant changes must be made in the coming months and years.
Some are as simple as publishing court forms in Spanish and making sure recordings of procedures are clear enough so accurate transcripts can be made.
Others are more constitutionally significant, including advising teenagers of their Miranda rights and holding hearings within 48 hours to determine if children should remain in custody.
The agreement also requires the county to create a community board with at least two parents whose children have been through the system.
The lack of community involvement in the county’s effort to reform itself has been a continuing frustration, said John Hall, who created the county’s in-school division program and leads a state task force set up to end the disproportionate number of minority children detained by the state.
“Here’s a court that operates on the old-boy system,” he said. “This is a court that thinks they have all the answers, and they don’t.”
Mr. Hall was also critical of the agreement with the Justice Department, which requires three federally appointed monitors to report back on Shelby County’s progress.
“They are not really putting a lot of teeth in this thing,” he said.
Some changes will be expensive, especially developing a cadre of public defenders well versed in juvenile court law and providing better medical and mental health treatment for children in detention.
All of the costs will fall to the county.
“County government is like all local governments, which is to say it’s really financially strapped at this point,” Mr. Scroggs said. “We have to figure out how to do it incrementally.”