When County Commissioner Henri Brooks filed a complaint with the Justice Department over concerns at Juvenile Court, she started an investigation that has had serious repercussions for Memphis. The result has been headaches, a cost of millions of dollars and a massive overhaul to what was working.
And they still don’t know what else is coming. It’s like “preparing for a herd of elephants running down a hallway when we’ve never experienced that,” commented one judge.
Chief Magistrate Dan Michael discussed how this happened and what they are doing about it when he addressed the monthly Midtown Republican Club meeting Tuesday night. “The DOJ investigation began in 2007,” explained Michael. It was Brooks who first called for it, filing a complaint alleging discrimination and misconduct at the court. Specifically, that African American children were being treated differently and more harshly; that there was nepotism and conflict of interest.
To make matters worse, “leadership changed in the middle of the investigation,” Michael said. The DOJ under Bush went to Eric Holder under Obama. “They got ugly. Judge Curtis Person gave them thousands of documents and access to the data base. We had been one of 12 juvenile courts to meet the model standards, but Henri Brooks found fault with it.”
They were criticized for not having medical facilities, but “we had medical plus psychological people on staff since 1965. Now we have a $1.3 million contract for psychological staff and nurses as if what we were doing was not good enough.” They were criticized for suicide prevention when “we didn’t have one suicide in 30 years.”
As for decisions being racially motivated, Michael notes the DOJ did not want to take a look at simple demographics. We have a large African American population here. They were using a D.C. formula not appropriate to us. “I’m a strong critic of the federal program of the deinstitutionalizing of minority confinement,” Michael said. “They said we were violating equal protection, but what about the 98% of Americans who don’t engage in criminal activity?”
Michael said Juvenile Court decided not to fight the ruling. “We were persuaded to a memorandum of understanding. We found out later the DOJ really didn’t think they had a case.” Nevertheless, they are having to proceed.
“We can’t lock our way out of the problem (of juveniles committing crimes). I can’t fix everything. We’re a court, not a social service. I just try to take it one child at a time.” To the issue of gun control, Michael feels that “the law will never trump guns.” What they see on the street is already illegal, yet kids are able to get assault rifles and other deadly fire arms.
Michael hopes that when election time comes, Memphians will look into the judges they will be voting into office. Newly minted lawyers just don’t have the experience to be on the bench and make these decisions. “It’s just too important.”