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Despite positive reputation, Missouri's juvenile justice system has serious systemic problems

Drawing of child and scales of justice
Susannah Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio

This July 31, the U.S. Department of Justice released the findings of a 20-month investigation into the St. Louis County Family Court that sent a jolt through the system.

"The investigation found that the court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children appearing for delinquency proceedings, and that the court’s administration of juvenile justice discriminates against black children, all in violation of the 14th Amendment," assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a conference call.

To many informed outside observers, the results may have been surprising. Missouri is recognized as a national model for juvenile justice reform, mostly for the changes it has made to its Division of Youth Services, where children are housed in campus-like settings and receive treatment from specialists.

But by and large, system insiders weren’t surprised at all.

"The system has been set up this way since I’ve been practicing since the '90s. Things have changed, and not for the better," said Trish Harrison, a former juvenile public defender and the head of the Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic at Saint Louis University School of Law.

The Department of Justice report looked solely at St. Louis County – but the problems are statewide. In fact, the federal investigation was prompted partially by a 2013 report from the National Juvenile Defender Center.

What’s required for juvenile court proceedings?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967’s in re Gault that youth in delinquency proceedings (the equivalent of a trial) have all of the same due process rights as individuals tried in adult courts, including the right to confront witnesses and the right to an attorney in certain cases.

How does St. Louis County fall short of this standard?

The Civil Rights Division found several areas of concern, 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 uses the word "arbitrary" to describe the system of assigning private attorneys to those who do not qualify for public defenders;
  • A failure to protect children against self-incrimination;
  • A failure to adequately determine whether 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.
Where are those conflicts of interest?

In the adult criminal justice system, the prosecutor, representing the people, makes the case that the defendant, represented by his or her own attorney, committed the crime in question. The judge acts as a neutral arbiter.

  But there’s no real “prosecutor” in the juvenile system. The main actor is a deputy juvenile officer.

The Justice Department’s report includes a vast list of the responsibilities of deputy juvenile officers. They 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."

Deputy juvenile officers are represented in court by legal officers. And everyone in the equation is an employee of the court. Their boss is the judge to whom they also present cases. There is no one speaking for the interest of the state, which is embodied in adult courts by the prosecutor.

"Prosecutors in the United States have a special role and a special function under the rules of professional conduct," said Mae Quinn, the head of Washington University’s Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic. "The American Bar Association and state statutes require that, in their role, they are to look out for what is in the interest of justice. They are not supposed to be single-mindedly pursuing prosecutions and convictions or wins, nor are they to be swayed by the individual interests of one individual. And that’s why I think it’s striking here that we have a situation where, quite openly, an individual serving in the role as a prosecutor outs themselves as representing an individual who happens to also be an employee of the court system."

How bad is the racial divide in the court?

Pretty bad.

The report found that African-American youth were disproportionately represented at four main decision points in St. Louis County’s juvenile justice system.

  • Black youth are 1.46 times more likely than their white counterparts to have their cases handled formally, which can lead to much more severe sanctions.
  • Even after controlling for the severity of the offense, black youth are 2.5 times more likely to be held in custody before their adjudication hearing.
  • Black youth are nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to state custody for committing the equivalent of a probation violation.
  • Black youth are nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to the custody of the Division of Youth Services after their case is final, even controlling for age, gender, the severity of the offense and other risk factors. (This is the equivalent of an adult being sent to prison)

Credit From the federal report

Credit From the federal report

The numbers are similar statewide. In 2013, the population of youth ages 10 to 17 in Missouri was 77 percent white and 15 percent black.

By contrast, 26 percent of the juvenile cases disposed of in 2014 involved black youth, compared to 71 percent that involved white youth. White youth made up 55 percent of the 692 individuals sentenced to the juvenile equivalent of prison – black youth were 36 percent of that population. And black youth were the vast majority of those certified to stand trial as adults.

How do these two problems interact?

The Department of Justice could find no reason for the racial disparities listed above other than the biases of the players. And the lack of “zealous advocacy” only serves to reinforce those biases at checkpoints along the way, said Washington U’s Quinn.

"When you have a system that doesn’t have all of the checks necessary, you run the risk of at different decision points of certain cases maybe being overcharged. And when time and again that happens in the cases of young black males, primarily, that makes us pause; and we have to ask some important questions," Quinn said.

Why does this all matter?

The process is often the punishment, according to Quinn.

"Every 24 hours in detention for a child can be life-changing in terms of the stigma, in terms of the trauma. One of the very good things about our local system is that the detention centers do treat our youth kindly. But that said, being taken away from one’s family, removed from one’s home and school setting even for 24 hours has a tremendous impact."

In some cases, the simple act of being charged has huge impacts, said Trish Harrison of SLU’s Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic.

"Your name is known. And once your name is known, if the police say you’ve been involved with something, there’s an assumption that it’s true," she said.

That’s exactly happened to one of Harrison’s clients, a young woman named M.M. She was 16 when she was accused of driving a car she knew was stolen. The public defender appointed to her withdrew the day of the trial, saying M.M.’s family did not meet the indigency standards, and M.M. was told she would be sent to detention for allegedly violating the terms of her home confinement while her mother tried to find another lawyer. She pleaded guilty to avoid being locked up.

An appeals court threw out M.M’s plea, saying she was pressured into entering it. But the case still follows her.

"I had got locked up, well, incarcerated, for a fight that I had actually done, and basically I was supposed to have got out early, but they kept me a little longer because they brought up my juvenile record, saying that I had been a problem," she said. "It kept me away from my daughter."

The level of coercion M.M. experienced was unusual, said Harrison, her appeals attorney. But, as the Justice Department report noted, children consistently face more subtle pressure to admit to crimes they did not commit.

What are the solutions?

Funding would help with many of the problems. In 2009, Missouri ranked 49th in the country when it came to funding its public defender system. St. Louis County had one public defender handling 394 cases in fiscal year 2014. Simply getting additional attorneys into the courtroom would allow for more zealous advocacy.

But a cultural shift is also important, according to Quinn:

"It’s not about impugning individual actors, but being mindful that we’re at a moment of opportunity with all that’s happening right now in St. Louis County, and to use this as a time to rethink fundamentally how we go about everything from policing youth, to processing them through our system, to providing them with counsel, to how we embrace the role of counsel within the system."

In her initial conference call, the Justice’s Vanita Gupta said her office had had good preliminary discussions with St. Louis County Family Court presiding judge Thea Sherry and Joe Dandurand, the assistant state attorney general who is representing the court. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said the conversations are ongoing.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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