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'Let Local People Solve Local Problems,' Memphis Says In Bid To End DOJ Oversight

The Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are considering a request from county officials in Memphis, Tenn., regarding federal oversight of the juvenile court system there.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
The Justice Department and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are considering a request from county officials in Memphis, Tenn., regarding federal oversight of the juvenile court system there.

Five years ago, the Justice Department concluded that juvenile courts in Memphis, Tenn., failed to give due process to children.

Civil rights investigators uncovered significant racial disparities, and they reached a deal to fix some of those failings.

Now, local officials are asking to terminate federal oversight. They're making their pitch to Justice Department leaders, who have a very different view of civil rights enforcement from the previous administration.

When the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Memphis a few weeks ago, he heard an earful from local officials over the breakfast table.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell told the attorney general that it's time to end expensive federal oversight of the juvenile courts. Because, he said, they've already done a lot of heavy lifting. Public defenders now represent 60 percent of the kids who appear in court, up from none five years ago.

The controversy in Memphis represents part of a much larger debate.

President Trump and his attorney general are skeptical of federal involvement in local law enforcement matters. In fact, Sessions has signaled he will cut back on investigations of discrimination or excessive force by local police and courts.

And if local officials in Memphis and Shelby County are so alarmed by Sessions, County Mayor Luttrell said, it only makes sense the oversight responsibility should be handled locally, not by people in Washington, D.C.

At a recent meeting, Luttrell told county commissioners they can step up and finish the job.

"You all can hold us accountable," Luttrell said. "You all can step in and do precisely what DOJ is doing right now. And that's what I hope to do, that's one of the reasons I made the appeal to D.C., which is: Let local people solve local problems."

But to good government advocates, the idea is premature.

"The racial disparities, the disproportionate minority contact, the equal protection deficiencies that were pointed out five years ago have not changed really at all," said Josh Spickler, a former public defender in Memphis who now runs the nonprofit Just City.

Spickler pointed out that an independent monitor found the county has made little progress in ensuring white and black children are treated the same.

"And I would argue in a county that is 53 percent African-American, it is the single most important item that this oversight should be addressing," he added.

Spickler sent his own letter to the Justice Department, urging its civil rights lawyers stay on the case.

At the juvenile court in Memphis, Judge Dan Michael has thrown his support behind an end to its relationship with federal authorities.

Michael said the county has succeeded in sending far fewer juveniles through delinquency proceedings and detention.

"We have made great strides under the agreement and are now at a point where there is little left that we can do since the remaining items are under control of state law or basic capital improvement issues," Michael said in a written statement.

Justice Department spokesman Devin O'Malley said federal authorities are reviewing the county's request.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.