August 22, 2012
On August 10, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released the results of its eight-month investigation into the unconstitutional treatment of children in Meridian, Mississippi.
In a sharply-worded letter summarizing its findings, the DOJ concluded that public officials at the juvenile court, the police department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services have “helped to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution.”
Jody Owens, managing attorney at the Mississippi Youth Justice Project (an NJJN member) and a 2012 Fellow in NJJN’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute -- observed, “A teacher could literally send a kid to detention center directly with a wave of the hand and without any due process ... and the youth court judges signed off on it. The really sad thing is, families got used to it. They accepted it as normal that they didn't have any constitutional rights.”
After investigating, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice alleged that:
- Youth were arrested in school for infractions “as minor as defiance.”
- Police arrested youth without investigating whether the presenting offense was sufficient for an arrest. The police themselves said they were operating a “taxi service” for the schools and the juvenile center.
- Youth were taken to the detention center where a temporary detaining order was summarily issued; a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge would issue a detention order at a subsequent hearing – again, without due process, and often not within the 48-hour time limit required by federal law.
- Attorneys were sometimes but not always appointed for youth at detention and adjudication hearings. (Even when a public defender was appointed, the DOJ concluded they did not provide meaningful representation.)
- Once on probation, youth who committed any subsequent disciplinary infractions – which could be as minor as being tardy – were disciplined by being confined in the detention center.
- The youth most severely affected by these violations were overwhelmingly black and/or youth with disabilities.
- Local officials – in particular youth court judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young – refused to allow the DOJ staff to observe youth court, interview staff, or review files. As the DOJ stated, “To date, Lauderdale County has failed to produce even a single document in response to DOJ’s requests for information.”
If local and state officials in Mississippi fail to enter into “meaningful negotiations” with the DOJ within 60 days, the Department will file a federal lawsuit.