The Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge does far more than decide cases in a courtroom.
They run a $13 million system that impacts the county’s children and families in all kinds of ways. The judge decides whether to detain kids until trial, when police arrest them for alleged delinquent acts, whether they’ve done what they’re accused of, and what sentence they should receive. It also adjudicates child custody and child support, coordinates with the foster care system and helps schools deal with minor offenses.
On Aug. 4, Shelby County voters will decide who should hold this powerful job for the next eight years, so MLK50: Justice Through Journalism attempted to interview incumbent Dan Michael and his main challenger, Judge Tarik Sugarmon. Michael did not respond to three requests for comment, but Sugarmon agreed to an interview.
Sugarmon, the son of the late civil rights leader and judge Russell Sugarmon Jr., criticized Michael’s track record for rehabilitating children and on the harshness of his judgments. If elected, he said he’ll transfer fewer children to adult court and request that the DOJ resume its oversight of Juvenile Court.
What’s the quick version of why people should vote for you?
I’m the most experienced candidate in this race, including the incumbent.
I spent 15 years as a public defender, part-time. I was also in private practice. I’ve spent 24 years as a judge.
I’ve handled everything from capital cases — that’s where the state is pursuing the death penalty — to other types of felonies. I’ve handled hundreds of jury trials. I’ve handled federal criminal jury trials. I’ve handled cases in every court in this county.
I know you’re hoping to ensure that fewer children end up at Juvenile Court. What are some specific ways you’ll accomplish that?
One thing is being more present in the community.
I (want to) partner with the school system to have Youth Court down at the schools (instead of) at Juvenile Court.
Also, meeting with parent-teacher organizations, school counselors and principals, having either me or my staff going around to schools on a regular basis, talking to parents and counselors about what they can do to look for warning signs if a child is having issues. It could be emotional issues; it could be the child is going through depression; or there may be bullying going on. So we need to be closer to the community so that we have an opportunity to intercede when a child may be having problems.
The Police Department started this summons review team where they look at the potential offense … and determine whether or not it is one that requires transport (to Juvenile Court). I want to expand that program.
We want to have counselors at the detention center that evaluate a child. We can intercede if there’s some concern about childhood activity and have a counselor work with them for a period of 90 days.
We will provide (counseling and mentoring) services to the family in a location that is in close proximity to the child, their school or their home.
I watched both you and Dan Micheal on Behind the Headlines. You guys use some of the same language around being “trauma-informed” and diverting more kids. But is it fair to say you would run the court much differently?
That is fair to say because you have to be intentional about treatment and rehabilitation and this court has not been.
My program will be transparent. It will be intentional about rehabilitation. … We’ll measure the effectiveness of the discretionary programs. Those that are effective, we’ll continue to use. Those that aren’t, we’ll try to take out of the budget.
According to a federal report from 2018, the court had a ways to go in regards to equal protection — the treatment of Black kids versus white kids. How do you think you could address that?
The position that the court (currently) takes is it’s just a problem of kids growing up in poverty and the police and sheriffs picking up Black kids. That’s kind of disingenuous because there are less severe outcomes (the court) can produce.
If you are intentional about rehabilitation, you will start that the first time a child comes to court and start that track. There are a lot of ways this court can use the power that it has to influence outcomes.
Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com
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