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Juvenile Justice

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Whether it's the inevitable effect of a party-line shift on the Shelby County Commission, which went from a 7-6 Republican majority to a 7-6 Democratic majority after last year's quadrennial elections, or it's a matter of purposeful effort on the part of new members, race-consciousness has returned to the commission's front burner. (See also this week's)

Not that it was ever wholly absent. Any number of issues before the commission in the last decade or so have been affected, at least implicitly, by the issue of race. For starters, there is the matter of school construction -- and disagreement between blacks and whites (aka Democrats and Republicans) over how city and county systems should be governed and funded. Another racially tinged issue, dormant for the moment but a raging controversy during the last several years, was that of privatizing the county's correction facilities.

But justice, and the question of whether it is dispensed equally and equitably, is at the core of explicitly racial concerns that haven't been so directly addressed on the commission since arguments over redistricting preoccupied the body more than a decade ago.

The focus of recent discussion has been the matter, which simmered after last summer's countywide general election and came to a boil with the swearing-in of the new commission, of whether there should be a second Juvenile Court judgeship. That probably wouldn't have been an issue had anyone other than Curtis Person -- a respected longtime state senator, a white, and a Republican -- won in a field in which three prominent African-American and, presumably, Democratic candidates canceled out each other's votes. The fact that Person had served as a part-time court administrator for several years (and thus could be identified by critics with its practices) exacerbated matters, as did the question of racial inequities in the administration of juvenile justice.

Though support for the candidacy of last year's court runner-up, former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman, is part of the reason for the current controversy, race has become the overriding issue. There is no denying that black youths predominate before the court, that their cases are disproportionately remanded to adult courts, and that, as was recently disclosed, suburban white youths have often had their own cases diverted to alternate and presumably milder handling outside the court's jurisdiction.

This situation is but the tip of the iceberg, say several of the commission's black Democrats, some of whom are demanding both a federal investigation of the court and a command appearance before the County Commission by Judge Person, who, for his part, has promised to address all concerns if permitted to do the job he was elected to do. The commission's Republicans, who tend to be Person's defenders, balk at what they consider the peremptory nature of the summons.

Meanwhile, a decisive vote on the issues of a second judgeship has been delayed, and, following a stormy, racially tinged debate in a committee session on Monday, so has a vote on commissioning a formal study on the court's procedures.

While there is no doubt that the moment of truth is approaching on the issues of Juvenile Court, we hold on to the hope that racial and political comity will survive the final resolution.

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