Feds accuse Mississippi government agencies of operating ‘school-to-prison’ scheme
State and local law enforcement agencies in Meridian, Mississippi are accused of operating a “school-to-prison” scheme in which African-American children and students with disabilities are routinely incarcerated for allegedly misbehaving in school.
The Justice Department issued a letter of finding last week detailing the “the serious and longstanding nature of the violations” by Meridian police, the state’s Division of Youth Services, and Lauderdale County Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young.
“The systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if necessary.”
An 8-month federal investigation found “reasonable cause” that Meridian police and Lauderdale County juvenile courts have repeatedly violated the constitutional rights of black and disabled children by arresting them without probable cause and then denying them due process in court.
Students suspended for alleged infractions “such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect” were automatically arrested by Meridian police. “MPD command staff and officers consistently characterized MPD as a ‘taxi service’ for District schools and the Juvenile Center,” Perez noted. The arrests were carried out by Meridian officers without assessing whether there’s probable cause that a crime has been committed, thereby violating the students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Once in juvenile detention, students were routinely denied timely probable cause hearings to review validity of the charges against them, often resulting longer-than-necessary incarceration.
In addition, the students weren’t always provided public defenders or attorneys to represent them at Youth Court hearings. “The protection of an attorney in legal proceedings is especially important for children, who are particularly vulnerable to the coercive nature of the criminal justice process,” Perez wrote.
Furthermore, Lauderdale County Youth Court judges were found to have imposed supervised probationary sentences even though “the probation contracts authorized, imposed, administered, and enforced by Lauderdale County and DYS contain conditions that are not comprehensible to juveniles and cannot effectively inform juveniles of their procedural rights and protections.”
“The system established by the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and [Mississippi’s Department of Youth Services] to incarcerate children for school suspensions ‘shocks the conscience,'” wrote Perez. “Moreover, the process used to effectuate this incarceration results from arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of vague standards in violation of substantive due process.”
- Department of Justice: Findings regarding Department of Justice investigation of Lauderdale County Youth Court, Meridian Police Department, and Mississippi Division of Youth Services – Aug. 10, 2012 (PDF)
- Department of Justice: Justice Department Releases Investigative Findings Showing Constitutional Rights of Children in Mississippi Being Violated
- Lauderdale County Juvenile Center’s website
- City of Meridian’s website
- Mississippi Division of Youth Services’ website