Federal report finds bias in St. Louis County family court
ST. LOUIS (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice released a report critical of the St. Louis County Family Court on Friday, finding that black youths are treated more harshly than whites, and juveniles are often deprived of constitutional rights. Though unrelated to the department’s investigation in Ferguson, the new report again raises concern about racial discrimination and profiling in the St. Louis region.
The investigation from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was initiated in 2013 amid complaints that black youths were treated unfairly in the family court, which handles about 6,000 youth cases each year. Treatment of African-Americans in the region drew increased scrutiny last year after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in Ferguson. The 60-page report arrived just over a week before the anniversary of Brown’s death, Aug. 9.
“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.”
Nixon called the report “deeply concerning.” Though in St. Louis County, the court is supervised by the Missouri Supreme Court. “All Missourians have a right to a fair and equitable justice system, and our young people are no exception,” Nixon said in a statement.
Stenger said he will urge the court “to work with the state of Missouri to fix the glaring problems identified by the Department of Justice.”
The report said the Justice Department will seek to resolve complaints through negotiations, though litigation remains possible. Gupta said at a news conference that an initial meeting with family court officials was “cordial and cooperative.”
The department is taking a similar tack as after a report released in March alleging racial bias and profiling by police and the municipal court in Ferguson. That report was begun following Brown’s death, and negotiations between the DOJ and Ferguson officials are still going on.
For the family court investigation, Justice Department officials analyzed data from nearly 33,000 juvenile cases, and looked at court records, transcripts, policies and procedures and external reports.
The report found that young people accused of wrongdoing in family court often lacked adequate legal representation, were held without proper determination of probable cause, and sometimes pleaded guilty without fully understanding the consequences.
It also alleges that black children were nearly 1½ times more likely than whites to have cases handled formally, rather than through diversion or other informal means. They were 2½ times more likely to be detained before going to trial, and three times more likely to be sent to the Division of Youth Services for parole violations.
Gupta said in the 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, 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.
The investigation was among four of juvenile justice systems initiated by the Justice Department in recent years:
—The DOJ reached a settlement in 2012 with the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, calling for various reforms.
—The partial settlement of a lawsuit alleging due process rights violations in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, was announced in June.
—The department in March announced an investigation of due process and disability discrimination concerns in Dallas.