Civil Liberties

DOJ Investigation Finds Due-Process Violations, Discrimination in St. Louis County Juvenile Courts

A new report finds systematic failures to protect the rights of juveniles, as well as harsher treatment of black youths.


St. Louis County Old Courthouse

A Department of Justice (DOJ) report released last Friday found a significant disparity in the treatment of black youths versus their white counterparts, as well as numerous systemic due-process violations for children of all races, in the juvenile justice system in St. Louis County, Missouri.

Law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, came under scrutiny after a police officer shot to death black teenager Michael Brown last year, an event that sparked its own DOJ investigation. While Ferguson is part of St. Louis County, the investigation into the county's juvenile courts began a year before Brown's death.

The DOJ found black children are less likely to have their cases handled through informal "diversion" programs, and more likely to be held in pretrial custody, custody for the juvenile equivalent of parole or probation violations, or custody after the juvenile equivalent of a conviction. The odds of being locked up were 2.5 to almost 3 times as great for black youths as for whites.

Based on the findings, which accounted for control factors such as "gender, age, risk factors, and severity of the allegation," the DOJ concluded that the disparity amounted to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

More broadly, the report found widespread violations of constitutionally protected due-process rights regardless of race. Children in the system are not provided adequate representation, according to the report, in part due to the "staggering caseload of the sole public defender assigned to handle all indigent juvenile delinquency cases in the county."

Just getting representation by the public defender is tricky—different judges and court officials apparently have different standards for determining eligibility, with at least one judge having no set standard at all.

Many of the other problems the report uncovered stemmed from this lack of adequate counsel. Per the report, St. Louis County fails to protect children's rights against self-incrimination; determinations on whether enough probable cause exists for the case to proceed are inadequate; kids facing trial as adults (a process called "certification" in Missouri) are denied due process by the court's "failure to consider, and permit adversarial testing of, the prosecutorial merit" of the case; and the court fails to "ensure that…guilty pleas are entered knowingly and voluntarily."

Additionally, the DOJ detailed how the structure of family courts in St. Louis County creates inherent conflicts of interest. Almost "every aspect of Family Court operations" are handled by Deputy Juvenile Officers (DJOs), employees of the court supervised by an administrative judge who "have authority to make arrests, but are likewise charged with protecting the interests of the children with whom they work." The Juvenile Office then employs "legal officers" who, unlike traditional prosecutors, act as representatives of the DJOs in court proceedings.

To make matters worse, "DJOs have a 'limited understanding…as to the role that defense counsel played throughout the proceedings, particularly during the investigation and fact-finding phases. As such, there was often little regard, and in some cases actual resistance, to youth representation at early stages in the proceedings or at all,'" according to a 2013 assessment by the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) cited in the DOJ report.

"Youth are discouraged from and systematically denied counsel throughout the state [of Missouri]. This denial of due process is well known, and it is deeply entrenched in the culture of many juvenile courts," the NJDC found.

The DOJ report concludes with a list of recommended remedial measures. It is nearly six pages long.