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St. Louis County, federal government reach agreement to reform family court

The agreement between the St. Louis County Family Court and the Justice Department, almost a year and a half in the making, is aimed at correcting violations in young people's due process and harsher treatment directed at black children.
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The agreement between the St. Louis County Family Court and the Justice Department, almost a year and a half in the making, is aimed at correcting violations in young people's due process and harsher treatment directed at black children.

Updated at 5 p.m. Dec. 15 with comments from juvenile justice advocates. - The U.S. Department of Justice and the St. Louis County Family Court have reached a deal to settle claims that the court routinely violated the civil rights of juveniles it served.

"We applaud the St. Louis Family Court for taking these important steps to begin implementing critical reforms," Vanita Gupta, the head of the department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. "We hope that juvenile courts around the country review this agreement and use it as a model to protect the constitutional rights of all children."

A 2015 report from the Civil Rights Division found that juveniles routinely were not provided with proper representation and that court employees failed to protect young defendants against self-incrimination.

The Justice Department also found that black children in the court were routinely punished more harshly than white children, even when taking the severity of the crime into account.

The system itself is also ripe with conflicts of interests, the investigation found.

The settlement, reached after about 16 months of negotiation, requires the family court to:

  • Double the number of defense attorneys that represent indigent youth, and ensure that defendants get counsel in a timely fashion. Those attorneys would also have to undergo specific juvenile defense training;
  • Establish a clear policy for determining whether a defendant is considered indigent;
  • Prohibit police from interrogating defendants at the juvenile detention center unless an attorney is present;
  • Prohibit deputy juvenile officers — court employees who handle nearly every aspect of a juvenile court case — from talking about the case with the defendant, or using incriminating statements the defendant might make in later hearings;
  • Conduct probable cause hearings to make sure that there is evidence the child actually committed the offense for which he or she is being charged;
  • Standardize plea hearings to ensure that all guilty pleas are made knowingly and voluntarily.

In addition, deputy juvenile officers will have to undergo additional training to make sure they understand the role of defense counsel in juvenile cases. And all court employees who are "directly involved with decision-making processes at the court or the juvenile office focused on juvenile delinquency" will get additional training about biases in the system that lead children of color to have more contact with the justice system than white children.
The court must also collect data about defendants in the system and distribute the information at public meetings twice a year.


Mae Quinn, the executive director at the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis and the former head of the juvenile law clinic at Washington University, said the settlement was a good first step. But she said it did nothing to fix an underlying systemic issue that exists in juvenile courts across Missouri — the fact that the role of prosecutors, probation officers and judges gets blurred.

"I do continue to believe that the Missouri juvenile court system is conflicted and unconstitutional from top to the bottom given the separation of powers problem," she said.

The Civil Rights Division raised that issue in its 2015 report, though changes to the system will probably take legislative action. Quinn said groups like hers will be watching to see what actions courts take on their own to reduce the conflicts.

"It'll be on a case-by-case basis for folks to decide if there's something that's problematic in their own case, or other systemic approaches," she said.

  • Read about Missouri's systemic issues with juvenile justice here.
  • Read about proposed solutions here.

She also noted that the agreement does not really bring parity to juvenile defense. Doubling the number of public defenders, she said, means there are now two instead of one.
"So you have two defenders with no support staff up against four or five prosecutors in four to five courtrooms, with all the [deputy juvenile officers] working for them. So that's still not a level playing field," she said.

Court administrator Ben Burkemper said in a statement that "the St. Louis Family Court is deeply committed to safeguarding the constitutional rights of youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system and to providing them with services that will help them make better choices and lead productive, positive lives."

In a statement emailed to reporters, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, called the settlement "a victory for the constitution and for the juveniles who will encounter the justice system and finally enjoy equal protection under the law."

The report includes no estimate of how much the requirements will cost.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.