NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Black children are treated more harshly than their White counterparts in the Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system, but the system still routinely violates the rights of children of all races, the U.S. Justice Department said in a blistering report.

The report caps an investigation that opened in August of 2009 after a complaint was filed with the Justice Department.

“JCMSC’s failures interfere with the proper administration of juvenile justice, erode public confidence in the system, and fail to promote public safety,” the report said.


The April 26 report praised juvenile court officials for beginning to make improvements on some of the more critical findings.

The judge presiding over the juvenile court system in Memphis took issue with the report’s assertion that justice decisions were based on race.

“I deplore and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind at the juvenile court, whether it is based on race, gender, religion, age or any other factor,” Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Curtis S. Person said in a statement.

The report found that Black children are treated disparately in almost all phases of the juvenile court process. They were more likely to be detained, less likely to receive warnings and get lenient treatment and more likely to be transferred to criminal court to be tried as adults. The report said Black kids even got harsher treatment in cases when their grades and criminal histories were better than their White counterparts.

“The statistical analysis shows that Black children in Shelby County are less likely to receive the benefits of more lenient judicial and non-judicial options,” the report said. “While we found that the impact of some legal and social factors reduced the impact of race, race was still a statistically significant factor in determining whether a child would receive lenient treatment (such as a warning) as opposed to more serious sanctions.”

Black kids were twice as likely to be detained and were transferred to adult court at more than twice the rate of their White counterparts.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat who represents Memphis, said he was glad to see that the juvenile court is working with the Justice Department.

“I feel confident that (the judge) will work with the Justice Department and remedy any failures,” Rep. Cohen said.

The investigation also found that the system often violated the due process rights of kids of all races.

The report found that young people were not given adequate notice of charges and said that sometimes during court hearings judges and lawyers would not be sure what criminal charges a child was facing.

The system was faulted for not holding timely probable cause hearings, which meant that children sat in detention too long before a judge would hold a hearing to determine if there was enough evidence for an arrest.

Juvenile officials also were criticized for using dangerous and excessive chair restraint techniques and for failing to protect kids from harming themselves. Children’s due process rights were routinely violated at hearings that would determine whether they should be transferred to adult court, the report said.