DOJ Issues Findings Report on Juvenile Due Process in St. Louis County
On July 31, 2015, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued historic Findings in the Investigation of the St. Louis Family Court stating that there is reason to believe that the St. Louis Family Court engages in conduct that violates the constitutional guarantees of Due Process and Equal Protection under the law. Citing the National Juvenile Defender Center’s 2013 Assessment of Access to and the Quality of Juvenile Defense Representation in Missouri, the DOJ Findings lament that little has changed in response to the gaps NJDC found.
With regard to violations of Due Process rights for children, the DOJ found that the St. Louis County Family Court:
- fails to provide adequate representation in delinquency proceedings, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment;
- fails to adequately protect children’s privilege against self-incrimination. For example, the Family Court’s requirement that a child admit to the allegations to be eligible for an informal processing of his case is coercive, and potentially forces a child to be a witness against himself in subsequent proceedings;
- fails to provide adequate probable cause determinations to children facing delinquency charges;
- fails to provide children facing certification to be criminally tried in adult criminal court with adequate due process. In particular, the Family Court’s failure to consider, and permit adversarial testing of, the prosecutive merit of the underlying allegations against the child at the certification hearing fails to “measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment,” in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment;
- fails to ensure that children’s guilty pleas are entered knowingly and voluntarily, in violation of children’s rights under the Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments; and
- has an organizational structure that creates an inherent conflict of interest, in that both prosecution and probation officer are employees of the court and the prosecutor is counsel for the probation officer, in contravention of separation of powers principles and due process.
The DOJ also made the following Equal Protection findings:
- Black children are almost one-and-a-half times (1.46) more likely than White children to have their cases handled formally, even after introducing control variables such as gender, age, risk factors, and severity of the allegation. This ratio means that Black children have a lower opportunity for diversion when compared with White children.
- Race has a significant and substantial impact on pretrial detention. Even after controlling for the severity of the offense, the risks presented by the youth and the age of the youth, Black youth have two-and-a-half times (2.50) the odds of being detained (held in custody) pretrial than do White children.
- When Black children are under the supervision of the Court and violate the conditions equivalent to probation or parole, the Court commits Black children almost three times (2.86) more to the Missouri Division of Youth Services than White children who are under similar Court supervision. This disparity exists even when we control for past referrals and treatment. This disparity exists even when we control for past referrals and treatment. Children committed to Division of Youth Services custody are placed in restrictive out-of-home settings.
- After controlling for severity of the offense and other variables, the odds of the Court placing Black youth in Division of Youth Services custody after adjudication (the juvenile equivalent of an adult conviction) are more than two-and-a-half times (2.74) the odds of White youth placement. White youth are significantly more likely to be placed in a less restrictive setting — such as on probation with in-home services or in a residential treatment facility that is not operated by the state — rather than in Division of Youth Services custody.
In addition to the full Findings report, the Department of Justice website contains several other related documents.
The report has garnered wide media attention, including this article from the New York Times.