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DOJ: St. Louis court discriminates against black children

The U.S. Department of Justice says St. Louis County’s juvenile justice system treats black children more harshly than white children “because of their race.” According to the DOJ, black children in St. Louis County are one and a half times more likely than white children to end up in Family Court in the first place. If convicted, they are more than two and a half times likely to be held in custody after trial. Reporter for USA Today, Yamiche Alcindor, joins Hari Sreenivasan with more detail.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    Good evening and thanks for joining us. We begin with a scathing federal report on the St. Louis County juvenile justice system. The U.S. Department of Justice says the county discriminates against black children, treating them more harshly than white children because of their race.

    According to the Justice Department's civil rights division, black children in St. Louis County are 1.5 times more likely than white children to end up in family court in the first place.

    Black children are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be detained before their trial, and, if convicted, they are more than 2.5 times as likely to be held in custody after trial.

    The report also found inadequate representation for children from low-income families no matter what race in St. Louis County, where one juvenile public defender handled 394 cases last year.

    The investigation began in 2013, nine months before the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which is in St. Louis County. In March, the Justice Department issued a similar critical report about disparate racial treatment by the Ferguson Police Department.

    Yamiche Alcindor is reporting on this story for USA Today, she joins me now from St. Louis.

    This was a fairly comprehensive dive that the DOJ took. I mean, they looked at more than 30,000 cases over a three-year period to come up with these conclusions.

  • YAMICHE ALCINDOR, USA TODAY:

    They did. They really took their time looking at this court system because I think they really wanted to go in and talk to all the people.

    If you look at the report, it said that they interviewed judges. They interviewed public defenders. They interviewed private attorneys. They even interviewed the parents of these kids who they say whose rights were being violated.

    So, really, they took a very deep dive to come up with this report, took their time. And as you stated before, this is really something that showed that black children were really not being treated fairly, and also, it was really children, regardless of their race, their rights were really being violated.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    Right. Those rights, including ones of not to incriminate yourself. I mean, it seems that the diversionary programs were contingent on the fact that, OK, admit guilt and you won't have to come into the system.

  • ALCINDOR:

    Exactly. And even though it happened, it started nine months before Michael Brown was shot and all the unrest that happened in Ferguson, this really calls into question kind of how justice is dealt out in the St. Louis area, and really, in some ways, makes people really think about how our students and how our kids, I should say, are really being treated in this area.

    Are their rights really being protected by the people you would hope would protect them? You would think that a judge, and a public defender, people that are these children's lives during the most difficult times in their lives would have their best interest in mind but the Justice Department is saying that just wasn't the case.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    They also found a lack of uniformity and any sort of standard on even determining something as simple as — are you poor enough that you should get this public defender or not?

  • ALCINDOR:

    That is so — that's true. And one of the things that I found also interesting was the fact they criticized the structure of the court, saying there was a lot of conflict of interest, that people that were suppose to be having these children's best interests in mind were also having competing interests and paid by the same people that were now their adversaries.

    So, this idea that even the people who were supposed to be protecting these kids' rights, they also had conflicts of interest and really had — and really to answer to the same people that they were now being adversaries against.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    As we mentioned earlier, 394 cases in a year. At that kind of volume, you can't mount much of a very spirited defense and it looks like the Department of Justice found lots of case where there was almost no pushback at all.

  • ALCINDOR:

    Yes, and when I was reading that report, one of the things that struck me was, you talked about the numbers for black children, and I talked to some experts who were talking about the fact that really, there was an inherent bias going on here, too — the idea that you had, obviously, overwhelmed public defenders but you also had black kids who were being detained, not only more before the trial but also after they gave a — somewhat of a guilty plea in family court, or if they also violated their probation that they were also more likely to be detained.

    So, you have to think that in this case, the Department of Justice is really saying this family court really treated black children harsher and really treated them — and really treated them in the way that violated their constitutional rights. So, I think that that was really important to me when I was reading it.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    And something also interesting is the family court didn't seem to cooperate very much with the DOJ. They only allowed them to watch a limited amount of time in the session. But one of the things that the report mentioned was that the judge would basically rattle off a lot of legal jargon, and the kids would just be saying, "yes, sir, yes, sir, yes, sir", without really understanding what they were giving up.

  • ALCINDOR:

    When I read that, I thought — if you think about someone who's in family court, you think about a child who's really in need, who is really probably in a crisis moment in their life, someone who is maybe 13 or 14 years old, listening to all this legal jargon, even as a reporter, sometimes it's hard to follow what's going on in the courtroom.

    So, imagine being 14 or 15 listening to a judge in a very intimidating setting really talking about your future and you just saying, "yes, sir, yes, sir," to kind of get through that moment.

    So, it's really heartbreaking when you think of that because you can put that scene — you can imagine that scene in your head and think these are really children who really needed the help of this court and didn't get it.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    And this isn't the only place the Department of Justice has looked at or is looking at, right?

  • ALCINDOR:

    This is not the only place. From my understanding, Shelby County in — which includes Memphis, they actually had an investigation against them that was closed and that that was one of the things. They're also looking at Dallas County, Texas, and for very similar violations in looking into how they treat their youths.

    So, this is not going to just focused on the St. Louis area. They're also looking at other counties.

  • SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Yamiche Alcindor of USA Today — thanks so much.

  • ALCINDOR:

    Thanks.

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