St. Louis County’s family court and the U.S. government have reached a deal meant to resolve allegations that black youth are treated more harshly than whites and that juveniles often are deprived of constitutional rights. Wednesday’s announcement came after more than a year of bargaining to resolve what the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division called its “findings of serious and systemic violations of juvenile due process and equal protection rights.”
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The federal investigation, initiated in 2013, was unrelated to the unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson that erupted the following year after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. White police officer Darren Wilson was cleared in the death of Brown, who was black and unarmed. Wilson later resigned.
Despite the lack of charges against Wilson at the state and federal levels, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that cited racial bias and racial profiling in Ferguson’s policing and in a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targeted blacks. In a report released in July of last year, the Justice Department outlined its critique of the family court, citing racial inequities in the treatment of defendants.
The agreement made public Wednesday requires the St. Louis County family court to double the number of defense attorneys available to represent indigent youth and to ensure defense lawyers are timely appointed and undergo training. The deal also bars police interrogations at the juvenile detention center unless an attorney for the youth is present, and stresses that juveniles understand their rights before waiving them. The family court also must adopt standardized hearings to ensure that juveniles’ pleas to delinquency charges are voluntary.
“The harms and inequities in our juvenile justice system threaten to limit the opportunities and derail the futures of America’s youth,” Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “We hope that juvenile courts around the country review this agreement and use it as a model to protect the constitutional rights of all children.”
Family court administrator Ben Burkemper said in a statement that the court would continue to work with the Justice Department “and our community partners to strengthen our juvenile justice system.” He said the court “is deeply committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system and to providing them with services that will help them make better choices and lead productive, positive lives.”