A U.S. Department of Justice report released last year raised concerns about how well St. Louis County protected the civil rights of kids in the juvenile justice system.
"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 in July 2015 at a press conference announcing the findings of a 20-month investigation. "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."
Juvenile justice advocates say little has changed in those 12 months.
Some judges are paying more attention to things like notice, or letting a child know about a court hearing, said Mae Quinn, the former head of the juvenile law clinic at Washington University.
"But in terms of the right to counsel, the number of lawyers over there, the issues around probable cause findings, its all still problematic," Quinn said.
The biggest problem, she said, is that nothing has been done to untangle the conflicts of interest that exist in the juvenile justice system. Across Missouri, the main actor in the system is a deputy juvenile officer. These people do everything from issue Miranda warnings to supervise children whose cases are being handled informally. They are victim advocates, conducting investigations and recommending whether a child should be certified to stand trial as an adult.
"DJOs have the authority to make arrests, but are likewise charged with protecting the interests of the children with whom they work," the report said.
"I think there is real pressure from the probation arm [the juvenile officers] to retain their role as a sort-of third arm in the court system that has the power that it does," Quinn said. "Until that role is changed, I think we're going to be very limited in terms of the changes we can make."
A spokeswoman for attorney general Chris Koster, who represents the county, said negotiations are ongoing. The Department of Justice did not comment on the story.
For a review of the findings and how the department works, read "Despite positive reputation, Missouri's juvenile justice system has serious systemic problems."
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