In St. Louis, Black Youths Bear Brunt of Dysfunctional Justice System

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In St. Louis, Black Youths Bear Brunt of Dysfunctional Justice System

'In short, Black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race,' the US Justice Department found

"It is assembly-line justice, if you can call it justice at all," says the Justice Department's Vanita Gupta. (Photo: orangesparrow/flickr/cc)

Black kids in St. Louis, Missouri are being disproportionately impacted by unconstitutional and discriminatory miscarriages of justice within the Family Court system, according to a two-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to a statement on Friday from the agency's Civil Rights Division, the probe found multiple constitutional violations, including:

  • Failure to ensure youth facing delinquency proceedings have adequate legal representation;
  • Failure to make adequate determinations that there is probable cause that a child committed the alleged offense;
  • Failure to provide adequate due process to children facing certification for criminal prosecution in adult criminal court;
  • Failure to ensure that children’s guilty pleas are entered knowingly and voluntarily;
  • An organizational structure that is rife with conflicts of interest, is contrary to separation of powers principles and deprives children of adequate due process; and
  • Disparate treatment of Black children at four key decision points within the juvenile justice system.

"In short, Black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race," the findings report reads.

For example, the probe found that Black youths are almost one-and-a-half times 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. "Processing a case informally is considered more desirable for youth because after successful completion of an informal disposition, the case is dismissed," the report explains.

In other words, the investigation indicates that Black children have less opportunity to benefit from diversion alternatives—such as drug counseling or educational programming—when compared with White children. 

"The findings we issue today are serious and compelling," said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

"Missouri was at the forefront of juvenile corrections reform when it closed its large juvenile institutions and moved to a smaller, treatment-focused system and we are hopeful that Missouri will rise to this challenge to, once again, be a leader in juvenile justice reform," she added. "This investigation is another step toward our goal of ensuring that children in the juvenile justice system receive their constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process and equal protection under the law."

But to do so will require the sweeping structural overhaul of a system that Gupta described to the Huffington Post as "just rife with conflict."

"It is assembly-line justice, if you can call it justice at all," she added.

As HuffPo journalist Ryan J. Reilly reports:

The Justice Department's report found that the St. Louis County Family Court's organization structure "presents inherent conflicts of interest" that are "contrary to constitutional separation of powers principles" and deprive children of due process. The court's own legal officers play the role of prosecutors in the court, but are not "ethically constrained to pursue justice or act in accordance with the public interest," according to the report. Those legal officers—the quasi-prosecutors—instead are obligated to advocate zealously for the interests of their clients: deputy juvenile officers, who are responsible for "virtually every aspect" of the operations of the court.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Justice Department will seek a mutual agreement to resolve the violations, but otherwise could litigate.

"The action is similar—but unrelated—to a different Justice Department report issued in March that was highly critical of police and municipal court practices in Ferguson," the Post-Dispatch notes. "The new report references Ferguson as well, suggesting the that the conflicts of interest in the Ferguson municipal courts and Family Court are similar."

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