Updated 4:30 p.m. with comments from Civil Rights Division and react - A 20-month investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has found the St. Louis County Family Court violates the constitutional rights of children in its custody.
"The Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that the St. Louis Family Court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to juveniles appearing for delinquency proceedings," said Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights division. "The Justice Department also found the court's administration of juvenile justice discriminated against black children. They are less likely to be given diversion, more likely to be detained, and more likely to be committed to state custody than white children."
The investigation began in November 2013, after the publication of a report by the National Juvenile Defense Center. The DOJ found a wide range of offenses, including:
- A failure to provide children in delinquency proceedings with proper representation. There is one public defender assigned to handle all delinquency cases, and the report calls the system of assigning private attorneys to those who do not qualify for public defenders "arbitrary."
- A failure to protect children against self-incrimination.
- A failure to adequately determine if the child actually committed the offense with which he or she is charged.
- A failure to ensure that children enter guilty pleas "knowingly and voluntarily."
- An organizational structure riddled with conflicts of interest.
“None of the signposts of zealous advocacy, such as pre-trial motion practice, contested hearings, independent evaluations, and expert witnesses, are present in the St. Louis County Family Court,” the report said.
For example, in 2014, the public defender’s office closed 281 cases. The vast majority were so-called delinquency cases, where juveniles have committed an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult. Just three cases resulted in a contested adjudication, or the equivalent of a trial, in the juvenile justice system.
“The consequences in juvenile cases can be very severe,” said Trish Harrison, the head of the Child and Youth Advocacy Clinic at Saint Louis University law school. “Certain offenses, just being charged with them, can (cause a child to) be expelled from school. They can be removed from their federal public housing. If they are adjudicated of certain offenses, they can have to register as a sex offender on a public registry for the rest of their lives.”
The Justice Department also determined that the court routinely discriminates against African-American children. Black youth were 2.5 times more likely to be held in custody before their trials than white children. Black children are almost three times more likely to be sent to state facilities for violating conditions of the juvenile equivalent of probation and parole, even though the rate of violations is the same as for white children, the report finds.
“I think it is well-known, at this point, the role of implicit bias, where there are discretionary decisions being made at any point in a system,” said Gupta, “It’s important that they are identified and acknowledged and addressed over the long term, and that is something we’ll be seeking to do.”
Reaction and solutions
Judge Thea Sherry, who administers the county’s Family Court, said in a statement that she was reviewing the report, and referred all further questions to the office of Attorney General Chris Koster, who will represent the court in negotiations with the Department of Justice. A spokeswoman for the office also had no comment beyond saying the report was under review.
Steve Stenger, the Democratic county executive, said he was “deeply concerned” about the report’s findings.
“Although the Family Court is operated by the state of Missouri and not St. Louis County, I will strongly urge the Family Court to work with the state of Missouri to fix the glaring problems identified by the Department of Justice."
Gupta, the Civil Rights head, said she and other Department of Justice officials met Thursday with Judge Sherry and Deputy Attorney General Joseph Dandurand. She called the conversations “cordial and cooperative.”
"We were really heartened by the initial conversations about what we might be able to do collaboratively to get to reform, and I think that is ultimately where we're trying to go," Gupta said.
The solutions appear simple, but are in reality quite complex.
“We recognize that a number of the recommendations involve practices that are governed by state law,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the court’s structural problems must be addressed in order to correct the constitutional violations in our findings.”
“More money needs to be put into juvenile defense,” said Harrison, the SLU law professor. Nearly two decades ago, the state General Assembly boosted the amount of funding for public defenders after a specialized youth advocacy division decreased the number of juveniles who ended up in the care of the state.
“Having zealous advocacy keeps kids out of institutions. There’s a history of that, so the legislators need to see that and remember that and put more money into the system,” Harrison said.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann