Two years after federal investigators said that Memphis’s Shelby County juvenile court system discriminated against African-American defendants, the jury still is out on the court’s performance, reports NPR. The Justice Department said the system punished black children more harshly than whites. In the most incendiary finding, investigators said the court detained black children and sent them to be tried in the adult system twice as often as whites. “I’ve never seen any evidence of that happening,” says Judge Curtis Person, who has led the juvenile court for the past eight years.
Nine thousand children face delinquency charges in the juvenile courthouse each year. Many are handled outside of court, but around 3,000 are prosecuted by the district attorney’s office. Lawyers say about 90 percent of those prosecuted are poor and black. After the report from the Justice Department, public defender Stephen Bush hired a small group of public defenders to handle juvenile cases. By many accounts, the lawyers are doing better. The detention center, once overflowing, now has room for more than 100 children, in custody waiting for court hearings. The court has been working with schools and police to keep more kids at home or on probation.