For people connected to the Memphis juvenile courts, April 2012 is unforgettable. That's when federal investigators determined that the Shelby County juvenile court system discriminated against African-American defendants.
The Justice Department said the system punished black children more harshly than whites. In the most incendiary finding, investigators said the court detained black children and sent them to be tried in the adult system twice as often as whites.
The finding came after a three-year investigation, but not everyone in the Shelby County court system buys it. "I said I've been here a long time. I've never seen any evidence of that happening," says Judge Curtis Person. He has led the Shelby County juvenile court in Memphis for the past eight years and steadfastly denies allegations of discrimination.
Nine-thousand children face delinquency charges in the red-brick juvenile courthouse each year. Many are handled outside of court, but around 3,000 are prosecuted by the district attorney's office. Lawyers say about 90 percent of those prosecuted are poor and black.
Advocates for juvenile justice, like Patricia Puritz of the National Juvenile Defender Center, point out that unlike adult court, Tennessee's juvenile court is designed to rehabilitate children, not just punish them.
But Shelby County public defender Stephen Bush says he worries about the lack of mental health services and other ways to rehabilitate children in the system.
"It's a tragedy when the child is sent into the adult system when a court can't find the right services to meet the needs of that child," he says. "The stark racial disparities that were highlighted in the DOJ's findings here, you will find those in urban centers throughout the country. Race has become the defining characteristic not just of our juvenile court systems but also of our adult systems as well."
After the report from the Justice Department, Bush hired a small group of public defenders to handle cases in the juvenile system. And he's working with about 50 other private lawyers — paid for by the state. But many of these are the same attorneys the report criticized for inadequate defense of their young clients.
By many accounts, the lawyers are doing better — calling more witnesses, challenging testimony. Last year, one attorney won a boy's release by proving he had confessed to a murder he didn't commit. But an independent monitor says the quality of defense is still not as good as it could be.
So the jury's still out on the overall court performance.
On the second floor of the courthouse, though, the detention center at least seems to be getting better.
The center has room for more than 100 children, in custody waiting for court hearings. It used to overflow with kids. But the court has been working with schools and police to keep more kids at home or on probation.
Public defender Bush says there are 48,000 kids under the age of 5 in Shelby County. He hopes the system will be better by the time those children get older. "This work is going to take time, it's going to take deep commitment. But we really are talking about justice for a new generation," Bush says.
A spokesman for the court says the Justice Department plans to spend three more years in Memphis, trying to make sure it gets there.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Two years ago, federal investigators took a hard look at the juvenile courts in Memphis, Tennessee. And what they reported was not good. The Justice Department said many court-appointed defense lawyers stood by while juvenile defendants got railroaded. They also found the system punished black kids more harshly than white kids. The report caused a stir in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County where local officials promised to fix the problems. NPR's Carrie Johnson traveled there last week to take a look at how things are going.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For people connected to the Memphis juvenile court, April 2012 remains unforgettable.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bombshell from the U.S. Department of Justice tonight. Federal investigators determined the Shelby County Juvenile Court discriminates against African-American defendants.
JOHNSON: In the most incendiary finding, investigators said the court detained black children and sent them to be tried in the adult system twice as often as whites.
CURTIS PERSON: I said I've been here a long time. I have never seen any evidence of that happening.
JOHNSON: Judge Curtis Person has led the Shelby County Juvenile Court in Memphis for the past eight years. He's been steadfast in denying allegations of discrimination. But the feds gathered statistical evidence about the system and concluded there was a pattern of bias governing which kids are detained and punished. Person says a lot of urban courts have worse records than his. And he told a Justice Department official just that.
PERSON: I said, well, don't you have other courts that may have problems that we don't have that are far worse than what we're dealing with? He said, yes, but we want to build on your reforms so that your court can become the model juvenile justice court in the United States.
JOHNSON: That's still a reach for this court in downtown Memphis.
Patricia Puritz runs the National Legal Defender Center, a group that promotes justice for kids.
PATRICIA PURITZ: Problems that were described in Shelby County are the types of problems that we've seen for almost two decades all across the country.
JOHNSON: And here are some of those problems - neglecting to inform children of the charges they face and their right to remain silent, allowing minority children to be treated more harshly, confining kids in detention centers that are unsafe. Judge Person says the juvenile system doesn't serve the same purpose as the adult courts do.
PERSON: The juvenile justice system in Tennessee by law, by statute, is designed to rehabilitate children. It's not about punishment. It's about rehabilitation.
JOHNSON: The question is how well the court is achieving that goal. In a hallway filled with families and children on the first floor of the courthouse, nobody seems to pay attention to signs that read quite, please. They don't allow recording inside the courtroom. But the first case I see involves Earnest Wilson. He's spending his 18th birthday here in court where a judge is trying to figure out whether to send him to be tried as an adult. The prosecutor says Wilson attempted a carjacking and later escaped from a police van. Wilson doesn't have a parent or guardian to stand behind him in court as the judges ask. His mom is out of the picture. So a juvenile court volunteer, Sam Sehnert, stands in and testifies. Sehnert talked with me a few days later on the phone. He says Wilson did well on an early college admission test. But the deck's been stacked against him for a long time.
SAM SEHNERT: He has been involved with a man that he thought was his father that it turned out was not his father. He's been exposed to alcohol and drugs and prostitution. He's never had a very consistent living environment, you know, to say the least. There's been many times where, you know, Earnest didn't have anywhere to go.
JOHNSON: Sehnert pressed the judge to send Wilson to get mental health treatment in a residential program this time. But the judge said he wasn't sure there were any more services in Memphis that would fit the bill. So he transferred a tearful Wilson into the adult system. Sam Sehnert.
SEHNERT: The judge had an opportunity to save somebody's life, literally. But even beyond that, you know, I believe that to put Earnest in prison the day he turns 18, you're essentially manufacturing another criminal.
JOHNSON: Stephen Bush is the public defender in Shelby County. He didn't want to talk about specific cases, but he worries about the lack of mental health services and other ways to rehabilitate kids.
STEPHEN BUSH: It's a tragedy when a child is sent into the adult system when a court can't find the right services to meet the needs of that child.
JOHNSON: Nine thousand children face delinquency charges in the red-brick juvenile courthouse here in the Victorian Village neighborhood of Memphis each year. Many of the cases are handled outside the courts. But each year, 3,000 of them are prosecuted. Ninety percent of those defendants are poor and black. Stephen Bush.
BUSH: The stark racial disparities that were highlighted in the DOJ's findings here, you will find those in urban centers throughout the country. Race has become the defining characteristic - not just of our juvenile court systems but of our adult systems as well.
JOHNSON: Bush volunteered his office's help after the report from DOJ. He's hired a small group of public defenders to handle cases in the juvenile system. And he's working with about 50 other private lawyers paid for by the state. Many of these are the same attorneys the DOJ report criticized for inadequate defense of their clients. Bush says he understands many of those private lawyers operate under a lot of pressure.
BUSH: It's hard to do the level of representation that's required to meet the needs of a child that is suffering from a mental health disorder or who has a complex educational need when your fee is capped at $1,000.
JOHNSON: By many accounts, the lawyers are doing better - calling more witnesses, challenging testimony. Last year, one attorney won a boy's release by proving he had confessed to a murder he didn't commit. But an independent monitor says the quality of defense is still not as good as it should be. So the jury's still out on the overall court performance. Back at the courthouse, the detention center on the second floor at least seems to be getting better. The center has room for more than 100 children in custody waiting for court hearings. It used to overflow with kids. But the court's been working with schools and police to keep more kids at home or on probation. But the violent crime problem in Memphis remains. A short drive from the court building, Foote Homes is the only remaining public housing development downtown. At a hotdog cookout there designed to bring the community together to fight gun violence, I met a group of neighborhood ladies sitting on a bench watching the kids play basketball. For now, a safe spot, but not always says Bettie Miller.
BETTIE MILLER: Four kids got shot a couple of weeks ago.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Five.
MILLER: I mean, five. Excuse me. Five got shot. And last Friday, a young man got killed and put on his mama's porch. He's just - young people - young people got to know more of what's going on.
JOHNSON: That means staying away from gangs and staying in school, she says. No one expects the police to solve these problems or the mayor. And maybe the juvenile courts can't either. But all of them, working together? Public defender Stephen Bush says there are 48,000 kids under the age of five in Shelby County.
BUSH: This work is going to take time. It's going to take deep commitment. But we really are talking about justice for a new generation.
JOHNSON: Bush says he hopes the system will be better by the time those children get older. A spokesman for the court says the Justice Department plans to spend three more years in Memphis trying to make sure they get there. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.