Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell

Even though Shelby County’s Juvenile Court continues to discriminate against black children, the county’s top elected officials asked the Department of Justice to end its oversight of reform efforts designed to protect black children’s rights.

“It is time to terminate the agreement and allow all sides to stand together to praise the work that has been accomplished,” says the June 9 letter, which was signed by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael.

Luttrell explained his rationale to The Commercial Appeal Saturday. 
 “We were essentially saying that we felt like we had met the standards that had been required by DOJ and we were petitioning for the attorney general’s review,” Luttrell told the newspaper. He could not immediately be reached by MLK50 for comment.

However, in each of the eight progress reports issued since January 2013, the federal monitor found that the court continues to treat black children more harshly than white children. And in some areas, the discrimination — known as disproportionate minority contact, or DMC in the reports — has gotten worse.

“Little has changed…” wrote the federal monitor, “in terms of DMC and the relationship of race to decision-making at the stages of court referral, detention, and non-judicial decision-making.”

That assessment came just before the section labeled: WHY HAVE DMC AND THE INFLUENCE OF RACE ON COURT PROCEEDINGS NOT CHANGED? (Emphasis theirs.)

Both criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials reacted with surprise and dismay at news of the letter.

“Erroneous requests like this substantiate the community’s distrust for this system,” said Pastor Earle Fisher of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition.

From left: Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner and Pastor Earle Fisher of the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition

“We should continue to put pressure on our political and civil leaders and demand more, not less oversight. We should also communicate our disdain directly to Luttrell and request a written statement from him expressing his rationale for such a suspicious request.”

Said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner: “Clearly this is an affront to any child that goes to juvenile court and particularly any child of color.”

The county commission, which has oversight for the court, received no notification of Luttrell’s, Oldham’s or Michael’s intentions or the letter, Turner said. He said Saturday he plans to ask Commission Chairman Melvin Burgess to introduce a resolution opposing the withdrawal of federal involvement.

Luttrell’s letter signals that local juvenile justice advocates’ worst fear — that Juvenile Court’s mistreatment of black children in a majority black community will never end — may have been justified.

These fears began with the contentious confirmation of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions, deemed too racist to secure a federal judgeship in the 1980s, is considered hostile to civil rights and has moved quickly to fulfill President Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign promises.

On Thursday, ProPublica reported that Session’s Department of Justice is dialing back the use of the department’s primary tool to force civil rights reform: Consent decrees.

“Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees — which would result in no continuing court oversight,” wrote ProPublica reporters Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman. “The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement.”

In Luttrell’s letter to Sessions, under the heading “Equal Protection/Disproportionate Minority Contact,” Luttrell notes that the number of youth detained by Juvenile Court has fallen from 6,238 in 2010 to 899 in 2016. And he seems to suggest that reducing disproportionate minority contact is beyond the court’s control: “… the Court does not make the decision to initiate delinquency matters or prosecute cases.”

But a 2016 report written by some of the nation’s leading disproportionate minority contact experts found nine jurisdictions that were able to reduce DMC in their juvenile justice systems, including Montgomery County, Alabama, the state of Connecticut and Philadelphia.

While other cities, counties and states have managed to reduce the discrimination against children of color, Shelby County has not. As equal protection federal monitor Michael Leiber wrote in his last report, “the relative rates or gap in the racial disparity at each stage has not closed but rather has either stayed the same or has increased over time.”

From Leiber’s November 2016 report:
 • While the number of referrals for both Whites and Blacks are down, which is good, the relative overrepresentation of Black youth to White youth in court referrals continues to be an issue that has shown relatively no change over the last 7 years (which includes 2009)

• Although the overall number of youth involving secure detention has reduced significantly over the years for both White and Black youth, 2 Blacks are still being detained to every 1 White.

• Black youth continue to be underrepresented for cases diverted. In 2009, the relative rate index was .90, in 2015, it is .91.

Luttrell’s letter to Sessions does not acknowledge the the lack of progress on the court’s discriminatory treatment of black children.

But if the Department of Justice agrees that the oversight should be ended, the letter concludes, Luttrell asks that Sessions “join us at a press conference in announcing the success of our collective efforts.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.

Below is the entire 13-page letter sent to the Department of Justice. You read this first on MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.