At the BRIDGES USA office, Salina Shamsuddin (center), 16, takes notes while talking with Tydre (left) and Milana Kumar, 16, as they work on the Juvenile Justice reform project they have developed as a part of the Youth Justice Action Council. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

There are few officials in Shelby County who have as much influence on children’s lives as the Juvenile Court Judge. 

This judge — who will be elected on Aug. 4 — runs a massive operation that deals with the mistreatment of children, juveniles accused of minor offenses and those accused of violence.

Nobody who works at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism has been a juvenile in some time. So, before the election, we sat down with leaders of the Youth Justice Action Council. This group of teenagers — some of whom have had contact with Juvenile Court — are working to reform juvenile justice in Shelby County. We also spoke with Robert Capshaw, a friend of theirs who has drawn the court’s attention but has never been detained.

The youth spoke passionately about the brokenness they’ve seen at Juvenile Court and ways they’d like to see it improved.

Why should people vote in the Juvenile Court Judge election?

Capshaw: If you don’t vote and you are able to, what’s the point of being able to vote? If you don’t like who’s in office, then you can vote and get them out. 

What are your thoughts on the court transferring certain cases to adult court?

Tydre, creative director for YJAC and a justice-involved youth: I feel that far fewer cases should be transferred to adult court, and the only way you should be tried as an adult is if you’re 17. 

Salina Shamsuddin, communications fellow for YJAC: Youth do not need to be tried as adults. … It’s just inhumane.

Kumar walks past some of the YJAC demands taped up on a work board.

What role have you seen race play at Juvenile Court?

Tydre: The system is ready to accuse, especially if you’re African American. I’ve gotten a summons for an (inaccurate) assumption, (so) I know for a fact people are behind bars because of assumptions.

Have you seen friends experience the system? And what does that do to your relationships?

Tydre: I had a childhood friend that had to be separated from me for three years. It was the Fourth of July and he popped a firework. The firework supposedly hit a propane tank in a shed, and it blew up the whole shed. He got charged with arson (and then served a longer term because of fights at the detention center).

What was it like for him when he got out?

Tydre: He was very different. Before he went in, he was a very humble person. He wasn’t too cocky. 

When he got out he had this big, macho-man thing. I feel like he was hiding his pain by trying to be rough. When he went in, he was 14. When he got out, he was 17 or 18.

What else about Juvenile Court would you like to see changed, no matter who wins the election?

Tydre: I feel like if time is the payment, nothing else is needed (so there shouldn’t be) fines and fees.

Shamsuddin: We’re focused on shutting down (juvenile detention), also creating rehabilitative outlets so youth have places to go and get the resources they need, all while centering those people. 

When youth get out, no one listens to them. When you ask a youth when they come out of the system, the main thing that they say is, “I just need a job. Like, I need to support my family.” And they’re not given that. So then they resort to that violence again, and that pushes them in the system again.

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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