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Justice Report Accuses St. Louis County Family Court Of Racial Bias


In a blistering report, the U.S. Justice Department has slammed the juvenile justice system in St. Louis County. It says the courts violate the constitutional rights of all children and routinely discriminate against black children. Today's announcement comes after a nearly two-year long investigation. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports from St. Louis.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: For several months now, there's been a spotlight on civil rights here in the St. Louis region. Earlier this year, the Justice Department blasted the municipal court system in policing in Ferguson just outside of St. Louis after the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black 18-year-old who was killed by a white police officer last August. Now the Justice Department says children caught up in juvenile justice system in St. Louis County are treated unfairly.

VANITA GUPTA: The investigation found that the court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children.

CORLEY: Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Depart's civil rights division, told reporters today the St. Louis County Family Court fails children in a number of ways. The DOJ's 60-page report says the juvenile court fails to make sure there is probable cause that children committed the offenses they may be accused of, that it works in a way that can coerce children into admitting guilt, and the court doesn't ensure that young people have adequate legal representation.

GUPTA: There's just one public defender who's assigned to represent all eligible juveniles, a staggering caseload of almost 400 new cases in 2014, which is twice the accepted standard.

CORLEY: Gupta says an analysis of more than 30,000 cases found that the St. Louis County Family Court failed to provide equal protection under the law for accused African-American children at key decision points and simply treated black children differently.

GUPTA: They are less likely to be given diversion, more likely to be detained and more likely to be committed to state custody than white children.

CORLEY: The head of the St. Louis NAACP, Adolphus Pruitt, says the DOJ report is just what he expected after years of fielding complaints when African-American children end up in Family Court.

ADOLPHUS PRUITT: You would think that the blindfold on the scales of justice has turned into a noose for a number of the kids who are caught up in the system. I mean, imagine you're having children in juvenile systems for maybe some minor offense copping to pleas out of intimidation and having poor legal representation.

CORLEY: St. Louis University law professor Trish Harrison is the head of the university's child advocacy clinic. She says juveniles in Family Court can face severe consequences, including expulsion from school or removal from public housing.

TRISH HARRISON: And this report says because they're such severe consequences, there needs to be these protections for kids. We can't just keep treating it as if it's a kiddie court without any real problems or consequences 'cause there's significant consequences.

CORLEY: And Harrison says more money is needed so that there can be more public defenders to act as zealous advocates for children. Assistant Attorney General Gupta says that would be a good first step. She says a meeting with St. Louis officials has set the right tone to start working to resolve the problems cited in the report, and she'd much prefer cooperation instead of a lawsuit. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.