In 2012, the Department of Justice (DOJ) entered into a comprehensive memorandum of agreement with the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. The goal of this agreement was to resolve findings of serious and systemic failures in the Court that violated children’s due process and equal protection rights. This unprecedented agreement was designed to ensure that the Court protects constitutional rights of children throughout their court proceedings and take steps to reduce disproportionate minority contact.
Due process reforms provide procedural safeguards for children at critical phases of their cases including requiring the court:
- Establish a dedicated juvenile defender unit in the public defender’s office that will be independent of the court and have the structure and resources to provide independent, ethical, and zealous representation for children.
- Require procedural safeguards against self-incrimination, to provide notice of charges, and to hold transfer hearings.
- Appoint counsel before children appear before a magistrate judge for a probable cause determination and provide the probable cause determination within 48 hours for all warrantless arrests.
- Make written findings for key judicial decisions, including transfer hearings.
- Implement policies in the court’s detention facility that will prohibit the use of restraints, ensure a suicide prevention plan and require staff to receive training on adolescent development.
The equal protection reforms in the agreement require that the court administer juvenile justice in a manner that is consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. These reforms require the Court to:
- Assess where and why disproportionate minority contact (DMC) in the juvenile justice system occurs, including analysis of referrals and the Court’s decisions at key stages of a child’s court case.
- Prohibit pre-adjudication detention for reasons that are not related to public safety or future appearance in court.
- Hire a DMC coordinator, who will be charged with gathering data, working with the court and other county agencies to develop alternatives to detention, and ensuring that children are not referred to juvenile court based on their race.
- Establish a pilot program allowing law enforcement to phone in information about a recently arrested youth and get guidance on whether the child should be immediately released and provided with an appearance summons or transported to juvenile court.
The facility compliance reforms in the agreement aimed to address concerns about the safety of children at the detention center. Most notably, the reforms required the Court to:
- Prohibit the use of all restraint chairs and pressure point control tactics.
- Secure suicide cut-down tools to be readily available to staff.
- Secure a qualified mental health professional that will be available to assess any child expressing suicidal intent or other symptoms of suicidal behavior in line with the Suicide Prevention Policy.