Feds Sound Alarm on|St. Louis Juvenile Justice

     (CN) – The St. Louis County Family court discriminates against black children and fails to provide due process to children during delinquency proceedings, a report released Friday by the Department of Justice says.
     Representing an in-depth review of data from more than 33,000 cases, the 58-page report stems from an investigation begun in late 2013.
     Compared with white children, the report found that black children are 1.46 times more likely to have their cases handled formally, rather than through diversion or other means.
     Black youth are also 2.5 times more likely than white children to be held in custody, according to the report.
     When black children violate the probation-like conditions of the juvenile system, moreover, the St. Louis County Family Court commits those 2.86 more often to the Missouri Division of Youth Services than it commits white children in similar circumstances, investigators found.
     After adjudication, the equivalent of a conviction for juveniles, black youth are 2.74 times more likely than white children to find themselves in the custody of the Division of Youth Services, the Justice Department said.
     In many ways, Friday’s report echoes complaints voiced by protesters after the death last summer of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a community in north part of St. Louis County.
     Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot by former police officer Darren Wilson, who is white. The incident sparked months of often violent protests, putting a national spotlight on issues of racism and police excessive force and heightening the scrutiny on police killings across the country, especially those that involve blacks.
     The Justice Department noted Friday that its investigation of juvenile cases in St. Louis reflects an effort to see how “early interactions with the criminal justice system” can help ebb the tide of disparate incarceration in America.
     As to due-process violations, the report cites a failure by the St. Louis County Family Court to provide adequate representation for children in delinquency proceedings.
     Further complicating matters is the staggering caseload of the sole public defender assigned to handle all indigent juvenile-delinquency cases in the county, according to the report.
     The Justice Department says the system of appointing private attorneys for children who do not qualify for public-defender services in St. Louis is also arbitrary.
     Compounding the family court’s flawed structure, the significant delays in appointing counsel for children after detention hearings all factor into the constitutional violations, according to the report.
     Another section of the report details the court’s failure to protect children from incriminating themselves.
     It says the family court will process cases informally only if the children admit to the allegations. Such requirements are coercive and potentially force children to be witnesses against themselves in subsequent proceedings, the report found.
     Likewise the court fails to ensure that children enter guilty pleas knowingly and voluntarily, according to the report.
     Investigators found that the probable cause is often insufficient to show that a child committed the offense for which he was accused, and they said that adequate due process is also unavailable to children facing certification to be criminally tried in adult criminal court.
     The report describes a family court whose organizational structure is rife with conflicts of interest.
     In addition to blurring the roles of judge, prosecutor and probation officer, the court puts employees who must answer to judges in positions traditionally held by members of the executive branch, federal investigators found.
     Remedying these violations will involve hiring more juvenile public defenders, training them better and reducing their caseloads, the report says.
     Defenders also need better access to forensic social workers to provide a holistic defense, according to the report.
     The court meanwhile should bar employees from administering Miranda warnings or participating in interrogations, and ensure the presence of counsel during interrogations, investigators say.
     Racial-bias-awareness training, better staff diversity, and tracking of comparable cases with attention to the races of the participants will improve fairness as well, the report found.
     The study is one of four conducted by the Department of Justice since 2009 to ensure compliance with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
     Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta apprised Gov. Jay Nixon of the study’s findings in a letter Friday.
     Emphasizing the county’s high population, Gupta told reporters about the Justice Department’s “hope that through the reforms we obtain in St. Louis County, that they can have a statewide impact on juvenile court reforms.”

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