NASHVILLE — The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday announced measures to overhaul the Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system after a complaint several years ago alleged that African-Americans were being treated more harshly than children of other races.
Officials said the move — a first for the federal department — will be a blueprint for other juvenile systems facing similar issues nationwide.
Earlier this year, a blistering Justice report, prompted by the 2009 complaint, found that black children are treated differently than their white counterparts in the Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system and that the rights of children of all races are routinely violated.
To address the findings, the Justice Department said Tuesday that it has entered into a comprehensive memorandum of agreement with the Shelby County system to resolve "serious and systemic failures" that violate children's due process and equal protection rights.
Specifically, the department said it will:
— Establish a juvenile defender unit in the public defender's office that will be independent of the court.
— Require procedural safeguards against self-incrimination.
— Assess where and why disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system occurs.
— Prohibit pre-adjudication detention for reasons not related to public safety or future appearance in court.
— Create a community oversight group composed of juvenile justice stakeholders and six to nine citizens selected by the mayor and approved by the county commission.
Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, said he thinks the plans will benefit other juvenile systems.
"All too frequently across communities ... there are challenges in the juvenile justice system," he said. "I am hopeful and confident that this blueprint that we have put in place in collaboration with the juvenile court will enable us to accomplish these critical goals."
Officials said this is the first time the Justice Department has investigated a juvenile court system and used its authority under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
"While we have conducted these types of investigations into police departments throughout the country, as well as sheriff departments, since 1994, this was the first time we looked at and used this law to examine the juvenile justice system," Perez said.
The Justice Department's investigation earlier this year included a review of more than 66,000 case files over five years and the monitoring of hearings, transcripts of court proceedings, and several meetings with juvenile court officials.
The report found that black children are treated disparately in almost all phases of the juvenile court process. They were more likely to be detained, less likely to receive warnings and get lenient treatment, and more likely to be transferred to criminal court to be tried as adults, the report found. It also said African-American kids even got harsher treatment in cases when their grades and criminal histories were better than those of their white counterparts.
Young people were not given adequate notice of charges, according to the report, and sometimes during court hearings judges and lawyers were not sure which criminal charges a child faced.
The investigation also said that youths' rights against self-incrimination were routinely violated, and the court was ignoring their due process rights when they were faced with being tried as an adult.
Juvenile officials also were criticized for using dangerous and excessive chair restraint techniques and for failing to protect children from harming themselves.
Democratic Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, a vocal children's advocate, said Tuesday that he just wants to see all children in the juvenile justice system treated fairly.
"I want a court that — because of some of the ways these children are raised and because of some of the environments they're in — that at least there is a place when they find themselves in trouble, or abandoned, or neglected, that we as a community do everything we can to get them back on track," he said.