Justice Department Finds Huge Racial Disparities in St. Louis Juvenile Justice System


Photo by Richard Ross

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division recently found that the St. Louis County Family Court discriminates against African American children and denies basic constitutional protections to poor children accused of crimes.

After a 20-month investigation, the Justice Department found that Black children are 47 percent more likely than comparable whites to have their cases handled formally, rather than through diversion or other means. Black youth are 2.5 times more likely to be held in custody pretrial, 2.7 times as likely to be sentenced to detention at the end of the case, and 2.9 times as likely to be put into detention for violating probation.

Addressing the reasons for these disparities, Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta referred to studies showing “the role of implicit bias when there are discretionary decisions being made.” St. Louis County includes the city of Ferguson, where the Justice Department last year found pervasive racial discrimination in the police department and municipal courts. The same presumption of guilt that puts African Americans at risk of violence and abuse in Ferguson drives harsher treatment for Black youth in the county’s juvenile justice system.

The Constitution gives juvenile defendants the same rights to counsel and against self-incrimination as adults. But St. Louis County has about one million people and only one public defender for juveniles, and children sometimes are detained for months without a lawyer. The Justice Department found that in one year the public defender never challenged a probable cause finding, hired an expert witness or appealed a judge’s finding, and rarely asked for a mental health examination of the juvenile.

Most children accused of a crime are let off with a warning or put into a diversion program, rather than going through a formal process involving detention. But in order to participate in the informal process, children in St. Louis County have to admit to the charges against them, which the department found is coercive and forces a child to be a witness against himself. And while almost all cases end in an admission of guilt, the investigation found that St. Louis County judges did not examine whether guilty pleas were coerced or whether the child understood the consequences of admitting guilt.

The Civil Rights Division’s investigation into the juvenile justice system in Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis, found similar problems to those in St. Louis County, and officials there agreed in 2012 to make changes. The department filed suit over juvenile justice conditions in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, and reached a settlement this year with the state and the City of Meridian, but the case against the county continues. An investigation into Dallas County, Texas, has just begun.