Department of Justice Actions In Juvenile Justice
The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section has the authority to investigate whether juvenile justice systems and state or local governments systemically deprive youth of their rights. Upon identifying a systemic pattern or practice that causes harm, the Department may pursue several actions, including filing lawsuits in federal court, participating in cases brought by private parties, and seeking an agreement with the local government on how to fix the identified problems. The Department’s authority to pursue these actions comes from the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (42 U.S.C. § 1997a) and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (42 U.S.C. § 14141). The following summaries describe the Department’s actions in protecting the rights of youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
Due Process & Equal Protection Rights
Investigation of the St. Louis County Family Court: On July 31, 2015, the Department issued historic findings from its 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. Among the Department’s findings were the denial of constitutionally-adequate access to counsel in delinquency proceedings and the disproportionate placement of Black youth in custody. NJDC prepared a short summary on the investigation.
Statement of Interest in N.P. et al. v. The State of Georgia: On March 13, 2015, the Department filed an SOI in a class action lawsuit asserting that the public defense system in Georgia’s Cordele Judicial Circuit is so underfunded and poorly staffed that indigent adults and juveniles accused of committing criminal acts are routinely denied their right to legal representation. The Department took a strong stance on the right to effective access to counsel for juveniles and the need for procedural safeguards against an uninformed waiver of that right. NJDC prepared a short summary on the SOI.
Agreement to Reform the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee: In April 2012, the Department issued an investigation report finding that the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee failed to provide constitutionally required due process to children of all races and that the court’s administration of justice discriminated against Black children. Further, it found that the court had violated the substantive due process rights of detained youth by not providing them with reasonably safe conditions of confinement. In December 2012, the Department and the Juvenile Court entered into an agreement to resolve the serious and systemic failures in the juvenile court, including taking steps to reduce racial disparities in the system. NJDC prepared a short summary on the agreement.
Statement of Interest in S.R. & L.G. v. Kenton County, et al: On October 2, 2015, the Department filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) in federal court in the Eastern District of Kentucky in a case involving two elementary school children who were handcuffed by the school resource officer (SRO) after exhibiting conduct arising out of their disabilities. The plaintiffs allege that the SRO violated their rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendment and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Department finds that the SRO’s conduct of handcuffing the children at school amounted to an unreasonable seizure and lays out the Department’s expectations of any student-SRO interaction and the legal reasoning behind them. NJDC prepared a short summary on the SOI.
Investigations of Lauderdale County Youth Court, Meridian Police Department, and Mississippi Division of Youth Services: On August 1, 2012, the Department released its findings from its investigation of Meridian public schools’ practice of referring youth to law enforcement for often minor school-based offenses. The investigation revealed that the City of Meridian violates the Fourth Amendment by arresting children without assessing probable cause, and Lauderdale County and its juvenile court violate the procedural and substantive due process rights of juveniles throughout the juvenile court process. In October 2012, the Department filed a lawsuit against the Meridian Police Department for arresting youth without probable cause as well as the County Youth Court Judges and the state for engaging in a pattern of violating juveniles’ due process rights and unlawfully incarcerating youth for school suspensions and expulsions. In June 2015, the Department reached settlement agreements with the city and the state, requiring reform in police and probation practices. NJDC prepared a short summary on the settlement agreements.
Conditions of Confinement
Agreement Regarding Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center: In May 2015, the Department entered into an agreement with the Leflore County Board of Supervisors to reform the conditions of the Juvenile Detention Center, including efforts to eventually eliminate disciplinary seclusion. This agreement came in light of the Department’s earlier investigation, which found that youth confined to the Leflore Detention Center are exposed to excessive physical restraint and isolation as well as great risk of harm from inadequate mental health care and educational opportunities. Further, in January 2016, the Department released a findings letter on their Investigation of Compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at Leflore County, Mississippi, Juvenile Detention Center, which found several IDEA violations in the Juvenile Detention Center, primarily around its failure to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities; promptly obtain Individualized Education Programs (IEP) from home schools; and, provide students with disabilities of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
Statement of Interest in G.F. v. Contra Costa County et al.: In February 2014, the Department filed an SOI in a class action lawsuit challenging the solitary confinement policies and failure to educate youth with disabilities in the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall. The Department asserts that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the County to provide eligible students with special education services and the Americans with Disabilities Act requires the County to take proactive steps to avoid discrimination against students with disabilities at the Juvenile Hall.
Statement of Interest in Doe v. Michigan Department of Corrections: In March 2014, the Department filed an SOI in a case involving seven minors who alleged that they were sexually harassed and/or assaulted by adult prisoners and guards while confined in an adult institution run by the Michigan Department of Corrections. The Department clarifies for the Court that the regulations for the Prison Rape Elimination Act unequivocally apply to state-operated correctional facilities as a predicate for eligibility for certain federal grants, and that state-operated correctional facilities retain a separate and additional obligation to comply with constitutional standards regarding protection from sexual assault and other harm.
Investigation of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility: In March 2012, the Department released its findings from its investigation of the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi. The Department found a pattern of excessive force against youth and deliberate indifference to the mental health needs and serious risk of harm through physical and sexual assault in the facility. The Department concludes that the widespread deficiencies at the facility violate the Eighth Amendment’s mandate to protect imprisoned youth from harm.
Investigations of Indiana Juvenile Facilities: The Department opened investigations of two juvenile justice facilities in Indiana: Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility and the Indianapolis Juvenile Correction Facility. The investigation revealed that each facility failed to provide youth with adequate protection from harm, mental health care, and special education services, in violation of the Constitution and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Agreement Regarding New York’s Juvenile Facilities: In 2010, the Department entered into a settlement agreement with the New York State Office of Children and Family Services to address conditions at four specific juvenile justice facilities. The agreement requires the state to provide youth in the facilities with reasonably safe living conditions as well as adequate and appropriate mental health care and treatment.
Agreement Regarding the Los Angeles Probation Camps: In October 2008, the Department entered into an agreement with County of Los Angeles to remedy conditions in the Los Angeles County Probation Camps. This agreement followed an investigation by the Department, which revealed unconstitutional conditions of confinement, specifically the Camps’ failure to provide youth with adequate suicide prevention and mental health services.
Agreement Regarding Unlawful Seclusion at Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility: In June 2008, the Department and the State of Ohio entered into a Consent Decree to remedy the unconstitutional conditions the Department found at the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility. The Consent Decree required Ohio to reform its policies in the areas of protection from harm, education, mental health, medical care, programming, and grievances. In 2009, Marion closed down. In December 2012, the Department and Ohio entered into a supplemental agreement to reform the state’s use of isolation and failure to provide treatment at Scioto, in light of monitoring data revealing the facility’s continued use of unlawful seclusion on youth.