|Wendi C. Thomas: Juvenile Court racial bias not a myth|
|Thursday, 10 May 2012 10:02|
By Wendi C. Thomas for The Commercial Appeal
At nearly every turn, black children are treated more harshly than white children by Juvenile Court simply because they're black.
This isn't an opinion. This isn't a suspicion. The U.S. Department of Justice has declared this to be fact.
We know this to be true thanks to the dogged efforts of Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks. It was her 2007 complaint that spurred the recent investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Brooks, a former state representative, admits that her choice of words often isn't optimal and her approach tends to grate.
And Brooks, who is black, has drawn the ire of some white county commissioners, who allow themselves to be distracted by her style, thus ignoring the substance of what she's said.
But when it comes to disparate treatment at Juvenile Court, Brooks was right.
Don't expect her critics to apologize. She surely doesn't.
The former Juvenile Court employee can declare victory in this battle, but the war is far from over.
"I'm concerned about the reforms ... especially in light of the fact that Judge Person has said he doesn't agree with the Justice Department's findings," Brooks said Wednesday.
"If he doesn't agree with those findings, that kind of says to me that he's not going to be inclined to put any reforms in place."
Unfortunately, yet again, Brooks' concerns are valid.
"It's a subjective finding," Judge Curtis Person said late last month when the report was released.
Except it wasn't subjective at all. Read the 66-page report, examine the statistical analysis and the proof is crystal clear.
"I don't think race enters into the decision-making in Juvenile Court," he has said.
Except the Justice Department has concluded that unequivocally, it does.
"This disproportionate impact cannot be explained by factors other than race," the Justice Department's report read.
"I deplore and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind," Person told me Wednesday and I believe that he believes that is true.
Person is well-respected, conscientious and exceedingly amiable -- and that actually makes the situation far more frightening.
He has a stated commitment to fair treatment, but still presides over a court that discriminates against black children.
Imagine how unfairly these kids are treated in courts where the administration is less sensitive to racial bias?
The investigation found that in Juvenile Court, black kids are less likely to get more lenient treatments, like a warning, than white kids. Black kids are twice as likely to be detained as white kids. Black children are sent to adult court twice as frequently as white kids -- and this occurs even after considering all the other variables.
The situation is likely far worse, given that the Justice Department's report didn't address disparities in arrest rates by the county's policing agencies.
In 2006, Person slapped Germantown and Bartlett's hands for bypassing the court system and diverting suburban kids, who are predominately white, into diversion programs.
Person told me Wednesday that despite his convictions, he's going to review all of the Justice Department's remedies.
"I don't agree with it," Person said, "but I'm not going to ignore it, because it's too important to me, the court, the community."
It's also important to Brooks, who before long, will use language that distracts from her message. It's how she rolls, and after 20 years in public office, it's unlikely she'll change now.
But our response to her style should.
Instead of harping on how crassly Brooks does what she does, we should remember this success.
She's done what we say we want our elected officials to do: Use their influence to improve conditions for the people they represent.
Contact Wendi C. Thomas at (901) 529-5896 or e-mail thomasw@ commercialappeal.com.
Town Hall Meeting
Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks will hold a town hall meeting about the justice department's findings of discriminatory practices at Juvenile Court. The meeting is from 5-7 p.m. today at the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center, 485 Beale.