As President Barack Obama urges Congress to embrace criminal justice reform, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report saying the juvenile justice system in St. Louis County, Missouri treats African-American teenagers far more harshly than whites while also violating their constitutional rights.
It’s a grim piece of news, but, sadly, not surprising.
The investigation from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division began after civil rights activists complained that Black youths were treated unfairly in the family court, which handles about 6,000 youth cases each year. The report has taken a heightened sense of urgency in the wake of last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed St. Louis teen who was shot and killed by a white police officer.
“In short, Black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race,” Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and Family Court Administrative Judge Thea Sherry. She called the findings “serious and compelling.”
The reports paints a troubling picture in St. Louis County Family Court where there is just one public defender for juveniles who handled 394 cases in 2014. That’s absurd. Supporters of the Justice Department report say Black juveniles can’t get a fair hearing in this juvenile justice system and the county won’t hire more public defenders to represent young people.
The Justice Department analyzed roughly 33,000 juvenile cases St. Louis County Family Court. The report found that young people were frequently without sufficient legal representation, were held without proper probable cause, and pleaded guilty without understanding the law.
During his last 17 months in the White House, Obama is making criminal justice reform one of his top priorities, calling for reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, reviewing the use of the solitary confinement and barring employers from asking job applicants about their criminal history.
The statistics are particularly disturbing: One million fathers behind bars; one in nine black children with a parent in prison; a prison population that grew from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million today at an estimated annual cost of $80 billion.
“Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, that’s an injustice system,” Obama said during the annual NAACP convention last month. “Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it’s the presence of opportunity.”
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County juvenile justice system is racially discriminatory and doesn’t allow for adequate representation for Black youth. The Associated Press said Gupta wrote in her letter that several factors contribute to the problems, including the “staggering caseload of the sole public defender” handling delinquency cases, an “arbitrary” system of choosing who gets a public defender, and other issues.
She also criticized the organizational structure of the court, according to the AP, in which “the probation officer acts as both an arm of the prosecution as well as a child advocate.” That setup is “contrary to separation of powers principles,” Gupta wrote.
Sadly, criminal justice experts say the problem is not isolated to St. Louis.
“If you were to drop in on juvenile courts around the country today, in many places you would see the same things,” Mary Ann Scali, deputy director of the National Juvenile Defenders Center, an advocacy group whose research on Missouri helped prompt the Justice Department investigation, told The New York Times. “Children who get arrested in this country quite often don’t get access to counsel.”
Obama and Scali may not know each other but they are both working diligently to expose racial discrimination in America’s judicial system and pushing for criminal justice reform.
Unfortunately, politics always gets in the way. Congress will ultimately need to pass legislation to bring about substantial criminal justice reform. But with Republican legislators torpedoing Obama’s legislative agenda at every opportunity, I don’t see GOP lawmakers coming together anytime soon to address the racial inequities in America’s legal system.
What do you think?