Shelby County Juvenile Court officials in Memphis went on the defensive at a public meeting yesterday, clashing with parents and community leaders questioning them about racial disparities, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Youth advocates from Nashville, with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, organized the information session to discuss a new Memphis-based project to reduce the number of minorities brought to court. Residents instead wanted to discuss a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice, which cited a pattern of rights violations and racial discrimination in the local juvenile justice system. Dwight Montgomery, head of the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said his efforts to keep youths out of gangs and other trouble have been stymied by a lack of response by police and court officials.
John Hall, head of both the statewide and Shelby County task forces, cited improvements in the local system. The Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center, once brimming with a population that required extra cots, is now typically less than half full. He and the state youth commission called the meeting to explain that Memphis has been chosen for a new project by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — a multibillion-dollar organization formed in 1948 by Jim Casey, one of the founders of UPS, and his siblings and named for their mother. The foundation has gained a national reputation for promoting programs that provide alternatives to lockup for juvenile offenders.