The Justice Department cast the St. Louis County, Mo., law enforcement system in a harrowing light in March when it documented entrenched racism and unconstitutional policing in the town of Ferguson, which erupted in riots last year after a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
Now comes another Justice Department report, issued last week, documenting equally deplorable violations in the county’s juvenile court system, where children, often without basic legal representation, are routinely railroaded and mistreated.
The department opened the investigation in 2013 to protect the constitutional rights of children in the justice system and to discourage unnecessary incarceration. The department has undertaken similar investigations in Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
In St. Louis County, officials examined 33,000 juvenile court cases over a three-year period and found that the system regularly treats black children more harshly than white children and routinely denies indigent children — no matter their race — basic constitutional rights.
After controlling for relevant factors, including the severity of the offenses involved, a Justice Department analysis found that “black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race.” For example, black children were two-and-a-half times as likely as white children to be held in custody before their trials.
Black children were also more likely to be placed in the custody of the juvenile system than white children were and less likely to be diverted into community-based programs. White children were significantly more likely to get less restrictive sentences, like probation with services provided to them at home. This disparate treatment may not be intentional, but it is clearly racist in its effect.
The Supreme Court has ruled that states must provide lawyers to defendants who can’t afford them and that juveniles have the same rights as adults. But the very structure of St. Louis County’s family court system seems designed to deny due process and representation.
The children who go before the court do not get a truly independent advocate who looks after their interests. Investigators found that low-income children, who are legally entitled to court-appointed representation, are shortchanged at every turn.
For starters, there is only one public defender for juveniles in the entire county. A result is a staggering caseload for that one lawyer, who cannot possibly meet the needs of hundreds of children. For some who are not eligible for the public defender’s services, a family court judge will appoint a lawyer and order the parents to pay a “retainer”; often, cash-strapped parents persuade a child that no lawyer is necessary. Moreover, more than half of the lawyers who represented detained children entered the cases many days or weeks after the child’s detention hearing — too late to be of much help.
This appalling situation means that many juveniles are essentially representing themselves in complex legal proceedings that typically require them to plead guilty. Some of these children face the possibility of being transferred to adult courts, where a guilty verdict could have lifelong consequences. This is inconsistent with the Constitution and with basic principles of human decency.
The report offers dozens of recommendations for remaking this egregious system, starting with developing a strategic plan that sets clear goals to end discriminatory treatment at all points. As part of that process, the court has to train its employees to understand “the subtle ways that racial bias, conscious or unconscious,” affects policy and practice, the report says.
One absolutely essential step is for the county to create a defense system for poor juveniles that passes constitutional muster and affords them access to competent representation. The Justice Department should haul the county into court if it fails to make these changes.