Memphis’s Juvenile Court Plagued By ‘Culture of Intimidation’ And ‘Blatantly Unfair’ Practices
The Department of Justice is leaving Shelby County, but discrimination against Black children in court continues, a federal monitor says.
The Department of Justice abruptly ended its oversight of juvenile court in Tennessee’s Shelby County in October, saying it “applauds Shelby County’s reform efforts” and declaring it a success. But the department’s own monitor tells a different story: The county is still engaging in “blatantly unfair” practices that hurt children.
In 2012, the Department of Justice entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Shelby County Juvenile Court in Memphis after finding that the court discriminated against Black children and failed to provide due process protections to the youth in their care. After the county attorney’s office repeatedly asked to be released from the remaining requirements, the agreement was abruptly terminated.
But the problems remain, according to DOJ due process monitor Sandra Simkins. In December, she issued a searing report to Shelby County officials that detailed how the juvenile court system has resisted changes and “failed to act in good faith” during the process of the agreement.
“Over time it became clear this [resistance] was part of a coordinated effort to preserve the status quo, while termination of the agreement was pursued through political channels,” Simkins charged in the report.
Simkins said the court is likely to revert to its old practices now that it is no longer under federal oversight.
Shelby County transfers kids to the adult criminal court at triple the rate of any other county in Tennessee.
The DOJ report outlined two major issues in the Shelby County juvenile court that remain despite the ending of the memorandum agreement: persistent transfers to adult court and a lack of independence for appointed defense lawyers. According to the report, Shelby County transfers kids to the adult criminal court at triple the rate of any other county in Tennessee—a practice that Simkins says harms Black youth the most and may continue to violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
Simkins said prosecutors attempt to transfer kids to adult court whenever they can, even though Tennessee law states that it should be the last resort.
“It appears the Prosecutor of Shelby County routinely files notice of transfer on ALL possible cases without conducting meaningful review,” Simkins wrote in the report. “A tactic that deeply disadvantages youth.”
The practice allows prosecutors to delay giving discovery (the evidence that prosecutors have regarding the case) to the defense counsel and also gives prosecutors an advantage in obtaining plea deals.
“It’s a threat that they have that raises the stakes, and it makes it more likely that the child will admit fault or will admit blame and take a sentence that’s more severe than what they would if they didn’t have the threat of transfer,” Josh Spickler of Just City Memphis, a criminal justice advocacy group, told The Appeal.
“The risk of going to adult court is so frightening for families and youth that any plea deal to remain in juvenile court looks appealing,” Simkins explained in the report.
The issue was one of the major reasons the DOJ entered into a memorandum of agreement with Shelby County in 2012. Another issue that remains despite the agreement’s end is the judge’s power over defense attorney appointments on cases.
Currently in Shelby County, 39 percent of cases are assigned to defense attorneys chosen by the panel coordinator, who works for the juvenile court. In the past, Judge Dan H. Michael, who presides over the court, has ordered the panel coordinator to stop assigning cases to certain attorneys. (The other 61 percent go to the recently created juvenile unit of the public defender’s office.)
There’s a handful of attorneys who have been basically pushed out of practice in the juvenile court because the judge doesn’t want them there.Josh Spickler, Just City Memphis
“Some of the lawyers that are getting cases are getting them because the judge wants them to get them,” Spickler said. “And the judge knows how they practice law, and knows what to expect from them when he gives them the case. That’s a big problem.”
Simkins accused the juvenile court of practicing “a culture of intimidation” toward defense lawyers that is fostered through this conflict of interest between defense attorney appointments and the court.
“The judge has a history of being very confrontational with attorneys who are zealous, with attorneys who have pushed a little harder than most,” Spickler explained. “There’s a handful of attorneys who have been basically pushed out of practice in the juvenile court because the judge doesn’t want them there.”
This dynamic played out with the University of Memphis School of Law’s Child Defense Clinic, which was created in 2016 to work on cases in juvenile court. In 2017, after the director of the clinic criticized the conditions at the juvenile detention center on a podcast, the juvenile court ordered the panel coordinator to stop assigning cases to the clinic. Since then, the clinic has disbanded.
“If your statements displease the Court, your livelihood is at risk,” Simkins wrote.
With the DOJ gone, the juvenile court is now in the hands of the mayor and local officials. Mayor Lee Harris announced last month that his office will be overseeing the panel coordinator. This move to the mayor’s office also happened in 2013, after the DOJ released the initial findings—but the position was soon returned to the oversight of the juvenile court.
Spickler worries that the end of DOJ oversight will cause damage to the families and communities who go through the juvenile court system.
“If there’s one reason that the Department of Justice even decided to come and investigate Memphis in 2012, it’s because of the racial disparity,” Spickler told The Appeal. “Once we studied it for six years … we were shown over and over and over again that if you’re a Black child going through that system, you’re treated differently at many different points in the system.
“Over six years we saw very little, if any, change, in that. So to declare this thing over, when the primary reason that it even started hadn’t changed really at all, is really just an affront to the community.”