Tennessee County Agrees To Revamp Abuse-Riddled Juvenile Incarceration System

A Tennessee county with a history of discriminatory juvenile lock-ups that a 2009 Department of Justice report called unconstitutional has reached an agreement with the DOJ to deemphasize detention of youths and instead build up rehabilitation programs.

The agreement, the first to address a juvenile court system that the DOJ hopes will become a model for other counties, comes as more reports emerge of schools criminalizing student discipline and funneling predominantly minority students into the criminal justice system. In Shelby County, Tenn., black children are more than twice as likely to be detained than white children, and once detained, they were most likely to receive more serious sanctions and adult sentences for minor offenses. The New York Times explains:

Black or white, teenagers locked up by the county attempted suicide at record rates and were sometimes strapped to deep, wide restraint chairs and left alone up to five times longer than the law allowed.

They languished over long weekends without proper hearings, were not read their Miranda rights and received crucial court documents just before hearings, if they received them at all, investigators found.

“What we saw was an assembly line with very little quality assurance,” said Tom Perez, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

Nationwide, the number of juvenile delinquency cases has dropped significantly since 1997 from 1.9 million to 1.5 million. The drop, however, has occurred disproportionately, with a 20 percent decrease for whites and a decline of less than 3 percent for blacks. What’s more, incidents of abuse for those that are detained have continued. Just last week, a Florida prison guard was videotaped for the third time in recent memory viciously assaulting a 15-year-old inmate. In Meridian, Miss., the DOJ is suing to address incarceration for offenses as minor as school dress code violations. And many detention facilities continue to hold youths as young as 13 in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time.