Memphis Overhauls Juvenile Defense System After Federal Criticism


Responding to a critical U.S. Justice Department report on Memphis’ juvenile court, Shelby County, Tn., court officials will move the juvenile defense system from juvenile court oversight and place it under the office in charge of defending adults, says the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush will be in charge of the attorneys handling cases ranging from vandalism and minor theft to aggravated assault and murder, said Bill Powell, the county’s criminal justice coordinator. The public defender’s office in Memphis hasn’t held that role in 35 years.

Larry Scroggs, the court’s chief administrative officer, estimates the first year of operating a juvenile public defender system will cost about $1.6 million. Bush is expected to assemble a team of 10 to a dozen juvenile public defenders who will handle the bulk of the annual 11,000-plus juvenile delinquency cases. The Justice Department cited systemic problems. including instances of unprepared and uninformed defense attorneys who weren’t “zealous advocates” in representing minors, including those being sent to adult court to face possible prison time. The report, the result of a multi-year probe, found patterns of discrimination against black juveniles and violations of the rights of all minors.

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