On Aug. 4, Shelby County residents will vote to elect 37 judges. But one stands out for the position’s power and the recent controversy surrounding it.
The Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge runs a $13 million operation that deals with the mistreatment of children, juveniles who have been accused of minor offenses and those who have been accused of violence. The judge appoints the 11 magistrates who hear many of the cases, sets punishments and decides which cases to transfer to the adult criminal justice system when the District Attorney requests such a transfer. And, they are only elected once every eight years.
“The judge has a lot of power,” said Mahal Burr, co-chair of the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium. “There’s no jury. (Cases) go straight to the judge or who the judge has appointed.”
In 2012, a Department of Justice investigation found that the Juvenile Court was misusing that power in ways that violated children’s constitutional rights. It quickly installed monitors, who observed the court until 2018.
Those monitors noted significant progress under current judge Dan Michael, who was elected in 2014, but also major lingering issues, including the court continuing to treat Black children more harshly than white ones.
Local experts have also criticized Michael for transferring kids to adult court far more often than his counterparts in Tennessee’s other large cities.
Michael did not respond to three requests for comment by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. He has long denied any racial bias within his court.
The judge’s power
Michael oversees a network of over 130 employees, which is more than Shelby County’s 10-judge Criminal Court and its nine-judge Circuit Court combined, according to the most recent Shelby County budget.
This system shoulders a wide range of responsibilities. When police arrest kids for alleged delinquent acts, it decides whether to detain them until trial, 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.
Throughout this system, there are many possibilities for harming children’s mental health, experts told MLK50, and the judge’s ultimate decisions on cases often transform lives.
“The juvenile court judge is enormously important because so many things that have big impacts on children happen very quickly (in his courthouse),” said Sandra Simkins, who co-founded the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers University and helped monitor the court for the DOJ.
Simkins said Tennessee is unique in placing so many responsibilities under a single person and electing that person so infrequently.
Josh Spickler, an advocate for criminal justice reform and executive director of Just City, said Memphians should place this election near the top of their priority list because of the system’s effects on the city’s most vulnerable citizens — children who are almost always Black.
“We’ve got a problem with safety and justice … if we (fix) that anywhere it should be with children,” Spickler said. “This problem is worth solving more than any other problem we have.”
The 2012 DOJ investigation found the court violating children’s rights in three main ways:
- Protection from harm, including subjecting children to pain to force them to comply
- Due process, including a failure to provide children with adequate legal representation
- Equal protection, where investigators found the court treating Black children more harshly than white children, even when the children had the same record
Michael, who has worked at Juvenile Court for decades, was elected its judge in 2014. Between his election and the halt of DOJ oversight halfway through the Trump administration, the court went from having “full compliance” on none of the DOJ’s requirements to having it on 73% of the protection from harm requirements, 88% of the due process requirements and 25% of the equal protection requirements, according to DOJ monitor reports.
“Shelby County made commendable efforts to improve its juvenile justice system,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said in a release when the DOJ decided to end its oversight. “The Department is pleased to see Shelby County and its local elected officials embrace and show public commitment to continuing the reforms it has made.”
When this decision was made, though, the monitor overseeing equal protection improvements reported that the court had made little progress in fixing many of its racial disparities. The court’s treatment of kids was statistically related to their race — with Black kids punished with confinement in a correctional facility more often than their white peers. This remains true, according to data the court releases.
“The data indicate that disproportionate minority contact has been present in each of the steps of the juvenile justice system and has remained steady or constant since 2010,” the monitor, Michael Leiber, wrote in 2018.
The due process monitor, Simkins, reported in 2018 that “significant problems” remained in how children were being transferred to adult court.
Spickler said the judge’s decision on whether or not to transfer kids is one of the most important parts of the job because of the repercussions for the child.
“The juvenile court represents the last stop in what can be the end of a life in a lot of ways,” Spickler said. “Once you get into the criminal legal system as an adult, it can be a very limited set of opportunities for you. … If we can keep the child out of that system, then we have a chance.”
A transfer of power?
On Aug. 4, voters will choose between Michael, Judge Tarik Sugarmon, William “Ray” Glasgow and Dee Shawn Peoples.
Peoples and Glasgow had raised little to no money as of early April, according to required financial disclosures, which makes it unlikely they’ll be able to challenge Michael. Sugarmon, on the other hand, spent almost $9,000 during the first quarter of 2022, while Michael spent almost $13,000.
Sugarmon is the son of the late civil rights leader and judge Russell Sugarmon Jr., a former part-time employee with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and a current municipal court judge.
To hear from Michael and Sugarmon in their own words, you can watch their June interviews on WKNO’s Behind the Headlines.
He criticized Michael’s track record rehabilitating children, the harshness of his judgments and his lack of cooperation with the Countywide Juvenile Justice Consortium, an appointed board that advises local elected officials on the juvenile justice system. It has frequently expressed frustration with the court’s lack of transparency.
If elected, Sugarmon told MLK50 he’ll transfer fewer children to adult court and request that the DOJ resume its oversight of Juvenile Court, as the consortium has recommended. And he said he’ll decrease the number of kids who appear before the Juvenile Judge by expanding existing diversion programs and providing therapy to children after initial offenses.
Click here to read more of MLK50’s conversation with Tarik Sugarmon.
“We can intercede if there’s some concern about childhood activity and have a counselor work with them for a period of 90 days,” Sugarmon said. “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.”
Though the election is nonpartisan, Michael’s disclosure showed multiple ties to the Republican Party of Shelby County — including contributions from its chairman, Cary Vaughn, and Republican County Commissioner Brandon Morrison — and Sugarmon is a proud Democrat.
In 2014, Michael beat Sugarmon with 54% of the vote. If he does so again on Aug. 4, he’ll win eight more years as one of the county’s most powerful men.
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
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.