More youth in Shelby County, Tenn., are being turned in to authorities by their families
The problem, says Shelby County court services director Jerry Manness, is that children aren't afraid of much anymore.
“This is not the ‘scared straight’ era,” he says.
Manness, a 41-year veteran of the Memphis court system is responding to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which shows that of nearly 10,000 juveniles arrested in 2011, a third were turned in by caregivers or family members. According to the Casey report, "Detention in Shelby County," the threat of arrest is often used by families to sanction youth for violating orders of a court, to "arrange for services" for youth and family and to "get kids' attention." Last year, 900 minors were arrested for domestic violence, with an additional 665 charged with some form of disorderly conduct.
"We get children a lot of times for domestic conduct,” Manness explains. “Parents ‘get into it’ with their children and then will call the police who are drawn into a domestic violence situation. A lot of single parents work, they’re busy and by the time police are called to the home, there’s been an escalation of something.”
Manness says that parents and caregivers shouldn't be using arrest as a means to discipline children for disruptive behavior, but having parents and family members call the police on their children isn’t the only issue the local system is facing. With the year drawing to a close, that same system is under heavy scrutiny from the public as well as from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Casey Foundation for a pattern of unequal treatment of minority youths. At a public hearing in Memphis several months ago, one African American parent went so far as to call the system a “plantation.”
Gail D. Mumford is a senior associate at the Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group in Baltimore.
“[Juvenile detention] is becoming a defunct health system, a place for kids with high needs, and a care service,” she says. “We started entering this work years ago when there was a crisis around overcrowding of detained minors. Detention really ought to be used for those kids who really are a public safety threat. Now, it’s become a place for everybody and everything. “
In a Department of Justice report released last April, one of the more critical findings is that black youths charged with the same offenses as their white counterparts are being sentenced and treated far more harshly. The number of black juvenile offenders who are referred to the courts is nearly three and a half times that of whites. Once inside the system, the African American detainees are one and a half times more likely to end up in solitary confinement, and more than three times as likely to be charged as adults for the same criminal allegations as white offenders. These statistics hold even though black and white juvenile offenders have about an equal chance of being charged with a criminal offense in Shelby County. This phenomenon is known within the legal community as an example of “DMC,” or “disproportionate minority contact.”
“This report is a step toward our goal of improving the juvenile court, increasing the public’s confidence in the juvenile justice system, and maintaining public safety,” says Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, following the release of his department’s findings. The three-year DOJ investigation was carried out through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in response to caregiver and community leader complaints.
“A child who comes into contact with violent criminals who’ve committed aggravated robbery, rape or some other offense with a weapon is five times more likely to continue delinquent behavior as those who aren’t exposed,” says Manness. “We have the same problem with schools who want to change misbehavior into criminal behavior, but we now have a program designed to encourage school handling of it over the court system.”
Shelby County is now a model site for Casey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) to find alternative paths for juvenile justice reform, and address the issue of minority contact with the system. Launched in 1992, it is the largest detention reform initiative in the United States. JDAI is the flagship of Annie E. Casey Foundation’s juvenile justice initiatives with sites in 39 states and Washington, D.C., and including 185 counties. The aims of JDAI include increased protection of the legal rights of minors, as well as implementing mechanisms to reduce their chances of being locked up through such alternatives as issuing court summons over formal arrest, and extracurricular, intervention activities.
JDAI has had a number of successes. For example, Essex County, N.J., where Newark is the county seat, decreased its daily juvenile detainee population by 43 percent within a two-year period. Cook County, Ill., where Chicago is the county seat, youth arrests for violent crimes dropped 54 percent from 1993-2000. In California, Santa Cruz County (with its county seat of the same name), through work with JDAI, lowered its average minority population in juvenile detention by nearly 20 percent.
Since the spring, the Casey Foundation has held a series of public conversations in Memphis between concerned community members--parents, clergy, educators, police--and representatives of the county’s juvenile court and detention agencies. The Casey Foundation has enlisted Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law Policy, to liaise between community stakeholders and the judicial system in Memphis to address the challenges raised in the April, Department of Justice report, as well as the ongoing Casey findings.
“All of the strategies of JDAI are looking at situations through a racial lens,” says Casey senior associate Mumford. “We want the system conscious of its decisions, and if there are certain policies affecting children of color in a certain way we want those alternatives to have cultural sensitivities. We’re all hands on deck in Shelby County."