Sunday, December 17, 2006

No Holiday Truce In Shelby County Political Wars

‘Tis the season to be jolly and to cherish our children.

However, some Democratic county commissioners and some Republican Shelby County school board members seem intent on using children during this holiday season in ways that make Ebenezer Scrooge look an ambassador for altruism.

It’s enough to kill the spirit of the season. On one side, some elected representatives for Memphis are using youth as political pawns for an ill-conceived plan to add another Juvenile Court judge for a political friend, and on the other, some Shelby County elected officials continue to make decisions that call into question their commitment to children in the first place.

County Commissioners

First, the county commissioners.

Three commissioners profess to be affronted by the fact that Germantown and Bartlett have youth diversion programs that give young people arrested on first-time misdemeanor charges second chances. Apparently, or at least according to the lawyer for Juvenile Court, state law doesn’t give the cities the authority to operate these kinds of model programs, and instead, requires that the youth be sent forthwith to Juvenile Court.

As a result, the lawyer for Juvenile Court notified the cities to cease and desist. The fact that these two suburban cities - with their majority white populations – had diversion programs appalls the county commissioners, who went so far as to call for a federal investigation. At this point, it’s unclear what the federal government would investigate, but it is clear that the protests largely stem from the commissioners’ determination to create an unneeded second Juvenile Court judge for Shelby County.

From where we sit, if the federal government wants to indict Germantown and Bartlett for something, it would be for operating compassionate, enlightened youth offender programs that should be duplicated throughout the region.

Making A Federal Case Out Of It

Commissioner Henri Brooks, while serving in the Tennessee Legislature, was famous for her serial racism allegations and a flair for rhetorical hysteria, qualities in full flourish with the call for a federal investigation. Apparently, her firsthand knowledge of the evils of racial stereotypes doesn’t slow her down in using them whenever it suits her political ends. Her call for an investigation was joined by Commissioners Sidney Chism and Deidre Malone, normally seen as bridge-builders in local politics but apparently blinded by their desire to create another county elected office.

In a statement long on generalities and short on specifics, they garbled the facts so completely that they somehow concluded that Juvenile Court “has been operating separate programs for suburban juveniles at taxpayer expense and in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.” It seemed to matter little that neither of the youth diversion programs had any connection with Juvenile Court and were operated by Germantown and Bartlett.

It’s one thing to want a new judgeship so badly that you think you have to destroy the recently-elected judge to get it, but commissioners degrade themselves when they show a ready willingness to sacrifice youth in diversion programs as political fodder on the partisan battlefield. Although we were not supporters of the winner in the recent Juvenile Court election, the single-minded rush to create another judgeship is becoming a tawdry sideshow with political rallies masquerading as fact-finding hearings, and name-calling cast as political debate.

Hope Springs Eternal

We had high hopes for the “new look” Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Democrats deserved to be the majority on the legislative body a decade earlier, but since taking charge, they have seem to have lost their focus and their way, apparently distracted by old political scores to settle. Unfortunately, their behavior reflects a party too long in the minority and still unaware that it’s ultimate job now is to govern.

For 20 years, Democrats on the county board of commissioners decried the exclusionary politics of the majority and policies that failed to embrace the needs of the entire county. Along the way, Democrats declared that they could govern in a way that would unite the community and heal these old wounds. Finally, they have the chance to prove it.

So far, there’s been little to suggest that the past rhetoric can be transformed into a future vision for a unified county. But hope springs eternal here, and that’s why we hope the Juvenile Court fracas is just a misstep and not the first step of a journey toward a more combative, more fractious and more ineffective Shelby County Board of Commissioners that is willing to sow the seeds of divisiveness in order to achieve their own personal political objectives.

County School Board

We hold out no such hope for the Shelby County Board of Education. As proof that using children as political pawns isn’t the province of some Democrats, the Republican county school board continues its boorish political behavior by holding 2,500 students as hostages to its political agenda.

Faced with what seems like a reasonable request by Memphis City Schools - for the county district to continue to educate the students affected by the Countrywood and Berryhill annexations until city schools can be built for them - the county board again put politics ahead of pupils.

These days, it seems that if you ask Shelby County Schools anything, they condition their answer on whether you will support their special school district, an idea whose justification remains as questionable as the board’s contention that many of its decisions aren’t racially-motivated.

Watching the antics of Shelby County Schools, a prevailing urge is to put them in “time-out” and laugh about their silliness; however, their “take no prisoners” brand of politics are needlessly disrupting the lives of 2,500 young people in the annexation areas (not to mention thousands of students, primarily African-American, in Southeast Shelby County). Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson says she asked for the county schools to keep the students to prevent them from being moved three times in a few years - from their current county schools to temporary city schools and finally to their permanent city school.

Political Petulance

That seems pretty straightforward to us, but nothing is ever that simple in the Machiavellian parallel university of Shelby County Schools. In fact, county school officials responded to the request by forbidding the city district to set foot on the campus of a school that will ultimately become part of the city system following annexation.

Then, to make matters worse, County Superintendent Bobby Webb, largely a marionette in these situations, feigned indignation, saying that “an accusation that we won’t let them on the property is outlandish.” The truth is that Memphis City School officials asked at least three times to go onto the campus of Chimneyrock Elementary and were each time denied access to survey the property by Shelby County Schools. It was only after days of repeated refusals by the county district that Memphis City Schools sent its letter of complaint.

As we wrote last week, the recalcitrance of Shelby County Schools could be dismissed if it were not ultimately costing us taxpayers more than $12 million. That’s the cost of the additions to city schools that will temporarily house the 2,500 students.

Save The Children

Perhaps, if Shelby County Schools maintains its normal parochial politics and the students can’t stay in their present county schools, Memphis City Schools could find a way for them to attend the higher quality White Station schools. After all, it’s Memphis City Schools that has placed schools on the rankings of the nation’s best schools, not Shelby County Schools.

In the midst of this conflict, a committee of politicians and business leaders issued a draft report on school funding that’s been in the making for two years, and it appears to have arrived if not D.O.A. at least in the ICU. The possibility of the school districts cooperating on its recommendations grows more unlikely by the day, and the report, a compendium of ideas advanced over the past 25 years, doesn’t appear on the surface to be the catalyst to harness the systems behind it.

While we wait to see what happens, we hope the Yuletide spirit will bring a calmer, less incendiary style of politics here. It’s said that some things transcend normal day-to-day political considerations. Surely, the best of interest of our children is one of them.


Anonymous said...

Smart City, (and I know you guys personally) I admire your desire and optimism to make Memphis and Shelby County a better place to live. I think you are among the best urban thinkers in the world.

The problem is, this place has become a sewer of political and racial vendetta that I and my employees can no longer tolerate. It is not that we don’t want to stay here. Memphis could and should be positioned to embrace the future. Maybe someday, with the good work of people who “get it” that will happen. But our company no longer has time to wait.

We have made the strategic decision to move, because Memphis will never catch up with some of its peer cities that offer a better quality of life and opportunity. Our distribution operation will remain for a few years, thanks to FedEx. But our headquarters and R&D along with several hundred jobs will be leaving early next year.

We just cannot see the future from Memphis, and we’re not alone

Anonymous said...

Any chance the second juvenile judge may force a discussion of the crimianlization of adolescent behavior that the current judge, and others, seem intent on creating witht the elimination of diversion programs? Rather than eliminate diversion programs in the suburbs, because of the civil rights concerns, why not extend the diversion programs to other areas? This would eliminate the civil rights concerns AND reduce the criminalization of juvenile behavior. Why is it that some seem willing to accept the current President's statement that when he was "young and stupid, he did young and stupid things"? However we seem incapable of understanding that this is true for most adolescents. Since he had the right parents he never went to juvenile court or jail for his acitons while others do. George

William Winchester said...

From my perspective, all of the issues involving juvenile court are not about race, politics, or anything else (even though some of the motives for the current and past policies may be so related).

What it boils down to is the Rule of Law. If one system, or one aspect of it, departs from the Rule of Law and the Constitution, everybody in the long run suffers.

Tennessee law vests the juvenile court with the "exclusive original jurisdiction" over delinquency and unruly cases; no other court, municipal or otherwise, has that authority. The outer municipalities with their unwritten agreements with the juvenile court violated the law by diverting teens from the juvenile court.

Below is a letter to the editor I submitted to the Commercial Appeal on the matter; however, I doubt they will publish it - they have not published any other of my letters which are critical of the juvenile court, which cited facts and law showing the problems.

Of course, I ran for juvenile court judge as a reform candidate. All during my campaign, I pointed out the problems, and possible solutions, with juvenile court. The issue of the municipal courts was one such issue.

I am white; race is not a factor.

I am not interested in the second judgeship; politics is not a factor.

I am a strict constructionist with the Constitution; the Rule of Law is THE factor.

To the editor:

Several County Commissioners are calling for a federal investigation regarding the practice of the outlying municipalities of handling certain juvenile offenses in their municipal courts instead of sending the offenders to the juvenile court. Judge Person has stated that he has called a halt to it now that he has learned of it. Let the investigation begin.

During the recent campaign for juvenile court judge, I raised that very issue. And it appears everyone forgets that Judge Person has been a part of the juvenile court as a referee or chief legal adviser for many, many years. This is nothing new.

By statute, the juvenile court has "exclusive original jurisdiction" over certain classes of cases, including delinquent and unruly acts (criminal acts if committed by an adult) by minors. This is a matter of "subject matter jurisdiction". Everyone in the legal community should know that subject matter jurisdiction either exists or it does not exist, it can never be waived, and it can never be conferred upon another court.

This practice by the outlying municipalities with the full knowledge of the people at the juvenile court that has been allowed to happen for years is repugnant to our system of justice. Once again, the rich suburbanites get the prize and the inner city people get the shaft.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: What would be the three things that would have to happen to keep you here? We hate to lose the very people that we need here not just to compete economically, but to generate new thinking and reform of our public systems.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: We agree that the diversion programs need to be spread far and wide. The problem now is that we're into the power and control behaviors of the public sector that only inhibit youth diversion programs that could work. As a result, it appears that the current judge issued his letter to get a jump on the complaints from the Democrats that he had to know were coming.

Smart City Consulting said...

William: The suburban programs were initiated by some elightened leaders there. Where are the enlightened leaders in city government who are advocates for the same kinds of programs? As we have said before, state laws on Juvenile Court encourage criminalization of juvenile behavior that would be better handled in a nonjudicial setting. In today's overly criminalized world, are there any of us who should not have ended up in Juvenile Court while we were in our teens?

William Winchester said...

Smart City,

Again, the issue is "subject matter jurisdiction". The juvenile court is the ONLY court with jurisdiction of these types of cases.

There are many, many good programs that could be utilized by the juvenile court regarding diversion and rehabilitation; however, the court chooses to ignore those programs. Instead, far too often, the juvenile court would rather place juveniles in detention facilities, or far worse, transfer them to the adult courts. See, for example, the case of Braxton Moore at .

During the recent campaign, I advocated the use of some of the programs the state legislature has already created, which the juvenile court chooses not to use. One program is the Teen Court Program. This is where the juvenile court judge selects 12 teens from the area middle and high schools to hear certain types of non-violent cases, and the teens decide the cases and the punishment, if any. Of course, the offender must agree to participate. This would replace negative peer pressure from the gangs, etc., with the positive peer pressure from the Teen Court.

Another program that has been created by the legislature, but not used here in Shelby County, is to allow the juvenile court judge to hold sessions of court at area schools. This allows the children to see the court in action, and not be afraid of it.

There are also many types of diversion programs that are, or could be, created, to address these issues. Maybe now that the issue of the municipal courts is being forced to be addressed, and more of the suburban children being "herded" through the juvenile court, some of these programs will be utilized. If so, in reality, we will also know the reason they have not been utilized thus far.

Anonymous said...

Like Smart City I assume that these diversionary programs are a good thing. If what Mr. Winchester says is true, and the Court has had at its disposal similar such state initiated programs but has chosen not to utilize them for benefit Memphis' youthful offenders, I would be very interested in finding out why. I am beginning to suspect that there may be more to this issue of a second judgeship than mere political power plays. The one thing that seems certain at this point is that Judge Turner was one heck of a politician (and that is not necessarily a good thing).

Smart City Consulting said...

William Winchester: It sounds like we have options under the law, and Juvenile Court isn't pursuing them. What could Shelby County do to get its attention? I remember the days when no Criminal Court judge would release defendants on their own recognizance or set ridiculously high bonds for minor charges, and Shelby County set up pretrial services. Could county government do something to encourage these kinds of much-needed diversion programs?

William Winchester said...

Smart City,

That is a good question. That is where politics comes into play, and apparently, as the last election shows, I am not very good at politics.

Before I go further, as another slap in the face to the citizens of Shelby County, back in the late nineties Judge Turner turned down a $250,000.00 grant to fund attorneys for indigent parents because Turner did not think, as an internal memo stated, that "those derelict parents" needed representation, and that more attorneys would just clog the juvenile court.

Since the County Commission provides the funding for juvenile court, I am sure they could force some of the programs to be utilized, or else the juvenile court could risk losing some funding. That would be a politically risky proposition, but given the current political underpinnings, as well as the call for a federal investigation, some commissioners might jump at the chance to get the ball rolling.

I will email some of the members of the ad hoc committee investigating juvenile court and suggest some things, as can anyone else.

Smart City Consulting said...

William: It seems clear from the article in today's newspaper that there's a definite lack of courage on this issue. If we read it right, Judge Person is proud that he ended the diversion programs in Bartlett and Germantown before they became a political liability for him. This isn't exactly Shelby County's proudest moment. Every one is willing to make those suburbs pay for their humane programs. As you well know, there are programs all over the country that are working, and as Geoff Calkins' poignant column over the weekend about Kareem Cooper showed, it's often about exercising some positive influence in the lives of children whose lives teeter on the brink with too many falling into the chasm of corrections, welfare, etc.

We hope you can get some attention to the problem, and more importantly, to the possibilities for progress that exist if county government exercises its ultimate control over Juvenile Court.

Anonymous said...

Anyone which half a brain would'nt listen to anything Henri Brooks says. She is there for her own agenda; she made a spectacle of herself at the first Commission Meeting she attended. Her main objective since taking office has been to get the BEST parking spot in the Shelby County Administration garage, and spent a lot of time having people walk thru the garage until she got the spot she wanted. She was merely feet from the door, but that wasn't good enough. She then started in on the minorty vendor situation and hasn't stopped talking about it yet. She has been a thorn in the side of many a County employee since she took office, and has earned the title of troublemaker in a very short time. She is also having new cabinets made for her office, along with some other Commissioners, but she has everyone so scared that they won't release the other Commissioner's cabinets until hers are ready so they don't "cause trouble". Give me a break!

Anonymous said...

Smart City, some of the comments here have defined quite well some of the reasons there should be another juvenile court judge. Winchester proposed that maybe the County Commission could do something to encourage Juvenile Court to be more responsive and forward thinking by holding up funding. This has not been the case with other county offices. When the county commission has denied funding for other offices, they have been known to sue the commission to get the funding they think they deserve. While the Commission's motives may not be so pure in creating the second Juvenile Court judgeship, it appears that may be the only way to break up the feifdom created by Judge Turner. Judge Person campaigned that he would continue the fine tradition of Judge Turner's court that he has been a part of for so long, so there is not much hope that he would change the inner workings of the court unprovoked. As you stated, Judge Person has not shown any leadership so far. As far as I know, he has not shown up to the hearings to learn of the very real issues that people face in dealing with Juvenile Court. Whether realizing that it is a political rally or not, people have come out to state what their experiences have been with the Court, and a Judge who really cares about the people and not about the politics would come out to learn what he may not be passed up through the layers upon layers of bureaucracy. Maybe a second judge could help to balance the scales and encourage a court that has a more progressive view of juvenile case management.