Meridian Star

October 25, 2012

DOJ taking juvenile justice system to court

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     The threatened school-to-prison pipeline lawsuit became a reality for city, county and state officials on Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Justice took the case to federal court.

    In U.S.District Court in Jackson, DOJ filed a lawsuit against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, alleging that they violate the due process rights of juveniles.

    DOJ notified state and local officials of its investigation's findings on Aug. 10 and threatened to sue if meaningful negotiations were not reached.

    The lawsuit accuses the juvenile justice system in Meridian and Lauderdale County of violating the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments of the Constitution. The complaint alleges that the youth court judges and law enforcement agencies, along with the Mississippi Division of Youth Services help to operate a "school-to-prison pipeline" in which the rights of children in Meridian are repeatedly and routinely violated.

    "As a result, children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law," a DOJ statement issued Wednesday said. "The students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities."

    About 86 percent of students in the Meridian Public School District are African-American; about 12 percent are white.

    According to DOJ, the practices that regularly violate the rights of children in Meridian include:

    • 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.

    “The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.“It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children’s constitutional rights.”

    Wednesday's DOJ statement said the department had stated its willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations to remedy the situations, but the defendants did not enter in such negotiations in a timely manner.

    “It is disappointing that the local and state government agencies involved in the administration of juvenile justice in Lauderdale County have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations,” said Gregory Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to making sure that children in the Lauderdale County juvenile justice system are treated in accordance with the Constitution.”  

    County attorney Rick Barry said they had been working with DOJ to resolve the issue.

    "We thought we had a conference call (scheduled) with all the parties to talk about the matter," Barry said, "but we got an email yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon telling us they were going to file it."

    City attorney Ronnie Walton was unavailable for comment.

    "They filed it and we're going to vigorously defend it," Barry said.