First, the good news: The U.S. Department of Justice has acted decisively to require corrective action with regard to inequities in the operation of the Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court. It will be remembered that, after
conducting an investigation of several years' duration, the department issued a scathing report last spring on abuses within the court. These ranged from racial inequities in the handling of juveniles to questionable methods of processing cases to palpable conflicts of interest in administering justice.
On the last point, an agreement was reached between the DOJ and the court whereby the Shelby County Public Defender's Office will provide legal representation for youths unable to afford counsel. Up until now, the court itself has appointed lawyers to handle such cases, putting itself in the potentially contradictory position of being on both sides of the matter under review.
The agreement also calls for an end to "excessive" restraints in the court's holding areas and for clear, equitable standards to be applied in the preparation of dockets and disposition of cases. In particular, the practice of 48-hour holds before any procedural action is taken by the court is to be abolished.
Now the bad news: The price tag for compliance with the terms of the agreement is estimated to be somewhere between $4.5 million to $6.5 million, for which an already straitened county government is obligated. This unforgiving bottom line has prompted Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell to seek emergency add-on funding from state government, and it has exacerbated an already shaky relationship between the mayor and the commission, a majority of whose members apparently believe the administration has a somewhat cavalier attitude about two-way consultations.
In earlier hearings with officials of Juvenile Court, the commission had also made it clear that it deserved and henceforth would demand that the court provide it with more complete and effective communication. It had particularly sought, without much success, to be kept in the loop on discussions between the court and the DOJ, a point which is especially galling to commissioners, inasmuch as they could bear the brunt of any legal redress sought by the Justice Department if the conditions of the new agreement are not fulfilled.
Back to the good news, however: A veil has been lifted that had obscured some longstanding issues and abuses in Juvenile Court, including many that well-intentioned and perhaps complacent court authorities had not been aware of, and it is unlikely that it will be allowed to fall back in place.
Kudos to Shelby County commissioner Henri Brooks, who had made the initial call for an investigation of the court and whose internal warnings had too often found her in the Cassandra-like position of being ignored.
As an unofficial adjunct to the public school system of Shelby County, Juvenile Court is an indispensable agency of community welfare, and, whatever problems have to be surmounted, the trouble and cost of present and future reforms will be well worth it.