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St. Louis County Family Court signs agreement with feds to correct racial inequities

St. Louis County Family Court signs agreement with feds to correct racial inequities

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After 16 months of negotiations, the St. Louis County Family Court and the federal Department of Justice struck a formal agreement Wednesday to correct alleged racial inequity in the court’s handling of juvenile delinquency cases.

The agreement also addresses conflicts of interest and failures to provide fair legal representation.

The county’s circuit and family court judges approved the agreement Wednesday after closed deliberations during an “en banc” meeting in the St. Louis County Courthouse. The meeting was opened to the public at the end for a formal vote to sign the agreement. Judge Dennis N. Smith was the lone judge voting against the agreement.

None of the judges would comment, including Presiding Family Court Judge Thea Sherry. All questions were referred to Ben Burkemper, the St. Louis County Family Court administrator.

“The Family Court is committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of youth who come into contact with the juvenile system and to providing them better choice and lead productive, positive lives,” said the statement from Burkemper. “We continue to work with the Department of Justice and our community partners to strengthen our juvenile justice system.

Under the agreement, the court pledged to, among other things:

• Increase the number of trained attorneys available for youth. The agreement states that at least two publicly funded and properly trained defense counsels should be on hand.

• End police interrogations in the detention center unless an attorney is present for the youth.

• Notify a juvenile of his or her right to counsel and any financial assistance that may be available for such representation.

• Provide additional training for juvenile officers regarding racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile system, as well as due-process rights.

• Expand the role of the court administrator to also track compliance with the terms of the agreement. In addition, new data collection methods will better compile information on the race, sex and age of juveniles.

Multiple problems

In August 2015, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division alleged the Family Court deprived juveniles of constitutional rights, was rife with conflicts of interest and treated black youths more harshly than white youths. In October, a lawyer with Missouri’s attorney general’s office said the court and federal Justice officials had haggled over more than a dozen drafts of a proposed settlement.

The 2015 DOJ report found the family court had only one public defender handling twice the caseload recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice, and that all but three cases resulted in guilty pleas and never went to trial.

The feds further alleged juveniles were routinely detained without proper determination of probable cause and may have been allowed to plead guilty without clearly grasping the consequences. The vast majority of youth interrogated by the court waived their rights, federal investigators said.

There were also allegations of unfair racial disparities regarding legal treatment of black and white youth.

The initial DOJ report said black youths were less likely to be referred to diversionary programs that would prevent adjudication. Adjusting for factors other than race, it said black youths were 2½ times more likely than whites to be detained before trial and three times more likely to be sent to the Division of Youth Services on parole violations.

Taking steps

County court officials said Wednesday that they had already taken several steps in the past year to resolve the issues, including: ensuring the immediate appointment of counsel for youth; creating a staff position to address the over-representation of minority youth in the system; making probable cause findings for detention; and improving data collection regarding minority youth in the juvenile justice system.

The court had also sought to correct an alleged conflict of interest involving its use of deputy juvenile officers, or DJOs.

Under the old system, the chief DJO was supervised by the chief family court administrative judge. Under that system, federal investigators alleged, juveniles and their families thought the DJOs were representing their interests in court, and yet their boss was the judge, and information could be used against them.

The news release said the county had since created an administrative structure in which the chief DJO no longer reports to the judge.

Vanita Gupta, the principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, said that the agreement had “been a long time coming.”

“I will say for us that this agreement really highlights both the national challenges that we face as a country on juvenile justice, and the local solutions that we need to be able to provide a blueprint for reform,” she said in an exclusive interview with the Post-Dispatch.

She said the agreement “is unique in that it really address both the kind of due process issues, the procedural issues, and the racial disparities that we found back when we issued our findings … these are problems that are unfortunately all too pervasive around the country, but that were quite severe in St. Louis.”

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, also praised the agreement as a victory “for the juveniles who will encounter the justice system and finally enjoy equal protection under the law … which should include an opportunity to make a fresh start.”

Adolphus Pruitt, an officer with the Missouri Chapter of the NAACP and head of the St. Louis chapter, praised the court and federal officials for coming to an agreement. He said that he was pleased with the court’s pledge to hire more legal counsel for youth and that interrogations in the juvenile detention center, often without attorneys present, would stop.

“We’re always concerned when trained law enforcement officers who are experts in using manipulation if necessary to extrapolate information out of suspects — that they are allowed to use their training on unsuspecting juveniles who do not have the capacity to respond in a way that protects their rights,” he said.

He said that a court pledge to continue conversations with the community, but also said he was concerned whether those conversations were being as productive as they could be.

Chuck Raasch, of the Post-Dispatch, contributed to this report from Washington.

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Nancy Cambria is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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