Meridian Star

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October 7, 2012

Civil rights group to investigate DOJ allegations

MERIDIAN —     Members of a civil rights group are coming to Meridian Monday to investigate allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that the city, county, youth court judges and Department of Human Services have operated a school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian.

     City and county officials have denied the allegations.

    "We are going to be there until we find out if there is any truth to it," said Wendol Lee, president of Memphis, Tenn., based Operation Help Civil Rights Group. "If there isn't any truth to it, we will be gone."

    Lee said if there is evidence that people have been treated unfairly in court, "or there has been any malicious prosecution," people "will be put in jail."

    "That's what we do," Lee said. "We will be looking around and digging. If we find any wrongdoing we will turn it over to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder."

    Representatives of the group will be at Bonita Lakes Park at 3 p.m. Monday to speak with residents.

    "We are asking that all of the people who have been having these problems show up," Lee said.

    At issue is a letter released Aug. 10, in which the DOJ alleges that Meridian police automatically arrest children referred by the Meridian School District; that the children are sent to the county juvenile justice system; that the Youth Court places children on probation and sets the terms of the probation; and that the Division of Youth Services requires children on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.

     Children on probation are subsequently jailed for school violations such as "dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect," the Department of Justice alleges.

     According to the letter, during interviews Meridian Police Department command staff and officers consistently characterized the department as a "taxi service" for district schools and the juvenile center.

    In a written response, City Attorney Ronnie Walton and County Attorney Rick Barry denied the DOJ's allegations.

    "Your findings in your letter of Aug. 10, 2012 are one-sided and reflect, in our opinion, the inexperience and unprofessionalism of your investigating representatives as to basic criminal procedure, which our youth court system follows, and more reflects a personal agenda rather than a fair administration of justice," the response written by Walton and Barry states.

    The attorneys also refuted DOJ's allegations that police automatically arrest children referred to the district and that the city was uncooperative.

     "As you are no doubt aware, MPD and city of Meridian personnel were made available for your investigators to interview without any restrictions as to the scope of the questions asked of them," the response states. "Additionally, MPD produced requested documents with the exception of those which would have violated juveniles' rights of confidentiality."

    When the Aug. 10 report was released, DOJ threatened to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court within 60 days unless meaningful negations take place. The 60 days will be up Tuesday.

    Neither city and county officials, nor DOJ representatives were immediately available for comment Saturday.

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