Tennessee juvenile court cited for discriminating against African-American children
A two-year federal investigation concluded that African-American children were treated more harshly than white children by the juvenile justice system in Shelby County, Tennessee.
“We found that African-American children were treated differently during key points in the juvenile court process,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The racial disparities in the treatment of African-American children raise serious constitutional concerns under the equal protection clause.”
Analysis of over 60,000 court cases showed that black children in Shelby County were one-third less likely to receive lenient treatment – like a warning – than white children for minor infractions, such as “disorderly conduct, theft of property under $500, criminal trespass, vandalism under $500, assault, gambling, and simple possession of marijuana.”
At the same time, black children in Shelby County were twice more likely than white children to be detained while waiting for their probable cause hearing.
African-American children were also twice more likely to be transferred to adult court than white children for the same offense. The two-year investigation found at least one judge who transferred a case to adult court without even reviewing the evidence or considering the child’s background as required under Tennessee law.
Between 2005 and 2009, black children accounted for 95.5% of all the juvenile cases referred to adult criminal courts, where they face tougher sentencing standards and less access to rehabilitative services than in the juvenile system. Children who are tried as adults are more likely to “reoffend and continue antisocial behavior more frequently.”
“[Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County’s] own records show that [b]lack children are treated significantly worse than [w]hite children,” according to the Justice Department’s report.
The Justice Department has urged the Shelby County Juvenile Court to adopt remedial measures to address the racial discriminatory practices. The measures include engaging with the community to assess how the court’s policies disproportionately impact African-American youth, providing cultural sensitivity training to staff, and develop and use objective, race-neutral assessment tools.
- Department of Justice: Investigation of the Shelby County Juvenile Court by the Department of Justice (PDF)
- Department of Justice: Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas E. Perez Speaks at Shelby County, Tenn., Press Conference
- Department of Justice: Department of Justice Releases Investigative Findings on the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee
- Shelby County Juvenile Court’s website