By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Attorneys representing officials named in a lawsuit over the handling of juvenile offenders in Meridian are denying almost all of the claims filed by the Department of Justice.
Responses to the lawsuit, filed by DOJ on Oct. 24 in U.S. District Court in Jackson, were filed separately by attorneys representing the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young.
Attorneys are denying allegations in the lawsuit that claims the city, county, youth court system, and Department of Youth Services are engaged in a school-to-prison pipeline that violates the constitutional rights of youth offenders.
The DOJ lawsuit accuses the officials who operate the juvenile detention system here of arresting underage violators without probable cause, of denying juvenile offenders legal representation and of not following due process. Juvenile offenders are supposed to be afforded the same constitutional rights as adults.
DOJ officials said during an investigation conducted several months prior to the filing of the lawsuit, they found several problems, including:
• Children are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity – or lack thereof – of the alleged offense or probation violation.
• Children who are incarcerated prior to adjudication in the Lauderdale County system regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing, in violation of federal constitutional requirements.
• Children make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights and without making an informed waiver of those rights.
• Lauderdale County does not consistently afford children meaningful representation by an attorney during the juvenile justice process, including in preparation for and during detention, adjudication and disposition hearings.
Of particular concern DOJ contends is the how juveniles on probation are handled in the system. Once on probation for a previous offense, a suspension, regardless of the infraction, can lead to incarceration, even for actions such as dress code violations, tardiness, flatulence in class, using vulgar language, yelling at teachers and going to the bathroom or leaving the classroom without permission, according to the lawsuit.
In his response to the DOJ's lawsuit, Ronnie Walton, who represents the city, took each allegation point by point and said most of them did not apply to the city or its police force.
The lawsuit accuses the Meridian Police Department, acting on the request of the Meridian Public School District, of arresting youth for behavior traditionally considered only a disciplinary matter.
In Walton's response to the lawsuit, he says the city revised its policy on Aug. 23 of this year to specify that the police department will respond to city schools during normal school hours only for incidents involving the commission of a felony, physical violence, weapons or illegal drugs, or based upon an order for a Youth Court or other court that has jurisdiction.
The policy specifies that no officer may sign an affidavit or take a child into custody unless the officer sees the child committing the offense for which he or she is being arrested, or if the officer is acting on the order of a judge.
Walton informed DOJ of this change back in September, and in its lawsuit, the DOJ said the policy is unclear as to how officers will respond to referrals from the schools for incidents such as weapons or dug charges without transporting students. DOJ says the policy also does not address the issue of probable cause.
Handling the case for Lauderdale County, attorney Robert Bailey responded similarly, saying in his response that many of the allegations do not apply to the county. The response states that the defendant (the county) acted within the law and within proper youth court procedures. The county is also claiming immunity.
Bailey denies that the county is responsible for any of the allegations from the DOJ. As to the question of releasing juvenile records requested by DOJ, the response states that the county does not control the youth court records nor does it control access to youth court proceedings. However, Bailey noted, DOJ has been informed on multiple occasions that the youth court records, which are confidential by law, could be accessed by receiving consent from the juvenile or guardian or from a valid court order.
In a response filed on behalf of Judges Coleman and Young, attorney Henry Palmer denied that the judges have done anything wrong.
Palmer said the judges are not involved in the policy concerning or actions taken by any of the school systems concerning calling the police, calling Youth Court, suspending children, expelling children or providing for children's educational needs at an alternative school.
Palmer's response said the judges never revoke the probation of children for tardiness or absences alone, that they never place children on probation without the requirement that the children understand the terms of the probation, and that judges always consider the case of each child individually.
Moreover, the response says that the youth court judges always seek the least restrictive form of detention available for that particular child in his or her particular situation.
"The education of the youth still remains of paramount importance and each youth is instructed by the Court and DYS (Department of Youth Services) counselor concerning the importance and necessity of the child's mandatory attendance of school as part of their probation and/or parole," Palmer's response says. "There is nothing confusing about their required attendance of school as part of their probation and/or parole and the court cannot control the behavior of the youth in school any more than it can control the consequences each youth faces when he or she defies the terms of their probation.
"Life contains consequences for inappropriate behavior regardless of whether the child is happy about those consequences or not."
Palmer's response notes that Judges Young and Coleman encourage young people to continue their education and they advise them to use their suspension time wisely."