The federal monitoring of Shelby County's Juvenile Court, instituted in a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding with the county, could end forthwith if the Department of Justice responds favorably to a request to end the monitoring from three county officials: Mayor Mark Luttrell, Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham.
The officials discussed the matter of ending the federal oversight with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his recent visit to Memphis and elaborated on their request in a formal letter to the DOJ.
The DOJ's MOU with the county and the resultant monitoring procedures began following an investigation of Juvenile Court in response to a request from then County Commissioner Henri Brooks. The Department concurred with Brooks' complaint alleging a series of problems, including administrative inefficiencies and de facto racial bias, and the Memorandum of Understanding followed.
The letter to the Department from Luttrell, Michael, and Oldham maintains that the Court's shortcomings pinpointed in the DOJ investrigation and subsequent order have been fully rectified.
Should the Department of Justice concur with the local officials' request, such action would be in line with a new policy pursued by Sessions, who has called upon local law-enforcement jurisdictions to be stricter in their enforcement of legal penalties.
Reaction to news of the three County officials' request of the Department of Justice generated quick reaction locally -- much of it negative.
One critic was state Representative Larry Miller, speaking as a panelist Monday morning at the National Civil Rights Museum during the kickoff event for a Legislative Black Caucus statewide tour.
Answering a question from the audience about legislative action on juvenile justice, Miller said, "The first introduction to the justice system is Juvenile Court, where the rate of recidivism is 80 percent. Think of it ...I go in, I come out, and I go in again."
He then noted the county officials' letter to the DOJ and took issue with it: "They’re saying, 'We’ve done it, We’ve got it where it needs to be. We no longer need oversight.'" Expressing his disagreement, Miller said, "We're not there yet. The system is based on incarceration of young black men."
During a break in proceedings at the NCRM, Tami Sawyer, a local activist on justice matters and former legislative candidate, also objected.
"We haven’t resolved the issues of our Juvenile Court system," Sawyer said. "We still have high recidivism rates, the services that are being provided are sub-par, we didn’t have electricity for a week, [and]we didn’t have air-conditioning last summer. How can we say we care about our kids when we don’t want to get the help to support them?"
Characterizing Attorney General Sessions as someone who "in the past has had views that are deemed racist," Sawyer said, "That Mayor Luttrell and Judge Michael and Sheriff Oldham want to take that approach, it seems tome that they just want to check something off instead of really making change."
Another audience member, however, was more accepting of the thee officials' desire to see direct federal oversight lifted from Juvenile Court.
This was former County Commissioner Sidney Chism, now an employee of the Sheriff's Department and a declared candidate in next year's race for County Mayor.
Said Chism, evidently speaking on behalf of Sheriff Oldham:
"He has taken the goals seriously and has worked hard to achieve them, and I think he believes they have been achieved."
Two legislators who were on Monday's panel at the NCRM commented afterward to the effect that the Memorandum of Understanding should remain in effect but acknowledged that Luttrell,Michael, and Oldham seemed to have made good-faith efforts to raise the standards in effect at Juvenile Court.
Congressman Weighs In
Later in the day, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, noting that he had strongly supported the original intervention by the Justice Department, issued this statement:
“I am concerned about efforts to end Shelby County’s agreement with the Justice Department to address the routine violation of due process and equal protection at the Juvenile Court.
“While progress has been made since 2012, there are still reports of race playing a factor in court hearings and reports of the juvenile detention facilities becoming more dangerous. I was disturbed by DOJ’s initial findings, and I was proud to work with then-Attorney General Eric Holder and others at the Department of Justice to help resolve this matter in a fair and transparent way.
"I urge the Department of Justice to continue to monitor the Shelby County juvenile justice system to ensure the constitutional standards of all children are met.”