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DOJ Report Finds Stunning Revelations About Family Court

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Months after the Department of Justice (DOJ) uncovered patterns of racially-biased policing in Ferguson and days before the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, a new report from the DOJ details gross civil rights violations in St. Louis’ County Family Court. After reviewing 33,000 cases from 2010 to 2013, the department concluded that children go to trial without lawyers, plead guilty without knowing their rights, and are disproportionately criminalized if they are black.

Here are 6 of the most egregious findings:

Black children face far more punitive measures than white children. Black juveniles are 2.5 times more likely to be detained before trial than their white counterparts. They are 1.5 times more likely to have formal cases, rather than being diverted from the system. That means they are less inclined to get away with a warning, receive counseling, or be close to loved ones before trial. Black juveniles who violate the terms of supervision are also 2.9 times more likely to be sent to detention at the Division of Youth Services (DYS), and if they are found delinquent, they are 2.7 times more likely to be placed in DYS custody.

Children do not meet with a lawyer until days — and sometimes months — after they go to their hearings. But even when defense lawyers join a case, they provide grossly inadequate representation.

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The Family Court currently has one full-time public defender to represent juveniles in the county. Out of all the cases investigated by the DOJ, nearly two-thirds of defense attorneys joined a case at least seven days after a juvenile appeared in court, which reduced the likelihood of presenting a strong defense due to lost opportunities to collect evidence. When attorneys became involved, they rarely objected to “extensive leading of key prosecution witnesses, damaging hearsay and other excludable testimony, and improper evidentiary foundations.” Out of all the reviewed cases, only one defense witness was called to testify on behalf of a defendant. In the 2014 fiscal year, not a single expert witness was called for the defense. And out of 281 delinquency and status offense cases, adjudications — or convictions — were challenged three times. No appeals were made that fiscal year.

The right to a lawyer is assigned based on luck of the draw. The Family Court forgoes the Missouri State Public Defender (MSPD) form and uses its own application to determine if a juvenile qualifies for a public defense. As opposed to MSPD officials, Deputy Juvenile Officers (DJOs) who staff the St. Louis Juvenile Office’s various departments, review all applications. The state does not have an official body to appoint defense lawyers, and does not require special training to handle juvenile cases. Family Court also lacks consistent guidelines to determine eligibility for a public defense. As a result, court officials frequently assign private lawyers who charge parents fees — even if they cannot afford to pay them.

Kids are interrogated in jail-like settings and are Mirandized by court staff with conflicting interests. During the interrogation process, children are taken to detention centers where they can hear and see other juveniles who are locked up. DJOs are responsible for telling youth their rights, blurring the lines between the defense and court’s involvement in a juvenile’s case. When children issue statements, it is unclear whether or not they are informed of their rights or coerced into making a statement.

Juveniles rarely have an opportunity to speak up for themselves before a judge determines probable cause to proceed with a case.

In the one detention hearing that DOJ officials were allowed to watch, a boy was detained on robbery charges without a review of probable cause. In an attempt to move him to off-site supervision, character witnesses — including family members and a case worker — pointed to the boy’s pristine school record and detention-related trauma. But the public defender and DJO lawyer failed to pose any questions, and witnesses had little influence because they were not sworn in.

Children do not fully understand court proceedings.

In cases overseen by two judges and two commissioners, there was little indication that juveniles who plead guilty fully grasped the legal terminology used in court. They were only asked yes/no questions or “do you understand?” Moreover, the judges and commissioners failed to warn juveniles of the consequences of pleading guilty.