Sunday, September 09, 2007

Juvenile Court Fracas Blocks "Real" Answers

The continuing schoolyard bickering between the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person would make for a mildly interesting sitcom except for the fact that tens of thousands of children hang in the balance.

So far, however, neither side has done much to earn the respect of the public who pays the bills for this sad political theater.

On one side, there’s the board of commissioners with its apparent belief that county elected officials forfeit their First Amendment rights to disagree with them and whose new Democratic majority – with one Republican – has bafflingly invested so much of their equity in pursuit of what feels more like a political vendetta than productive public debate.

It's About The Kids

On the other side is the new Juvenile Court judge – a former state senator with the affected air that comes from too many years in the rarified air of the State Capitol and whose chameleon-like shifts between judge and administrator are ploys to keep him from doing precisely what he expected officials to do when he was a senator - respond directly to legislative inquiry.

Caught in the middle are tens of thousands of at-risk children who deserve better.

Maybe, just maybe, both sides are so fixated on political one-upmanship that they aren’t even seeing the ultimate target – how to best serve the young people of Shelby County.

Aiming Too Low

There’s little question that the commissioners have aimed too low, motivated too much by politics and too little by policy. Perhaps, there’s an answer that puts the emphasis where it belongs – on the children – and it is done by creation of a new division of county government – the Division of Children’s Advocacy.

Just a few statistics underscore the obvious and urgent need:

* 60 percent of children in Memphis live low-income or poverty

* Only 14 percent of children in poverty live with two parents

* 71 percent of students in Memphis City Schools are on free or reduced lunch

* 13 percent of all 16-19 year-olds in Memphis – almost 5,000 young people - are “on the street,” neither in school nor working, and this is the highest percentage of our peer cities

* About 20,000 cases a year are handled by Juvenile Court

Creating A Hub Of Services

Juvenile Court – with its $32.3 million annual budget and 437 employees – merely hints at the depth of county government’s stake in children. Besides the Court, Shelby County is the regional leader – and a major funding source - for early childhood programs, health department programs to fight infant mortality, the newborn center at The Med, Head Start and Memphis City Schools.

In seeking new answers to old problem at Juvenile Court, perhaps the place to start is in ending the Court’s neither fish nor fowl existence. After all, the judicial function is only the tip of the Juvenile Court iceberg, and there’s logic in separating it from its other functions and including them with the other children’s programs funded by county government.

Now, these programs rarely intersect with each other, and as a result, the opportunity for a cohesive, comprehensive strategy for improving the lives of at-risk children is squandered. Also, because of the fragmentation, there’s no overriding sense of accountability that monitors the performance of each and reports to taxpayers about the return on their investments.

A Better Way

For example, there’s no centralized place in county government where the tough questions are asked about city schools, there’s no place where policy analysis is conducted to show where funding returns the biggest dividends and there’s no place where new innovations in leveraging the county investments and in delivering services are developed. As a result, year to year, the various services never undergo the kind of rigorous evaluation that can give birth to better ways of doing business.

Three studies of Juvenile Court later, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners seem stuck so firmly in the past that it’s not yet considered this option. Three reports written for the commissioners – National Center for State Courts, Memphis Bar Association and Juvenile Court Ad Hoc Committee of the Board of Commissioners – all accept the present structure as a given for the future.

It needn’t be.

Division Of Labor

While the Bar Association report is instructive, it largely takes on the tone of a special interest lobby who wants its professional life made easier. Meanwhile, the Ad Hoc Committee report feels more like a star chamber proceeding in light of the commissioners’ previously stated insistence on a second judgeship, and many of its broad brush criticisms could just as easily apply to any county department.

But, the report of the National Center for State Courts issued June 8 is something else altogether. The self-titled “brief assessment” runs for 51 pages, and includes numerous recommendations that can be seen as a mandate for total reform of the system rather than just procedure improvements.

For example, it seems only reasonable that the same person – the Juvenile Court Judge - shouldn’t be in charge of the court system, the correctional system, the social services programs and the public defenders assigned to young defendants.

Checks And Balances

With the principle of checks and balances at the heart of government, it feels like an awful lot of checks and very little balance. After all, the judge supervises seven referees who handle legal proceedings and hearings, he runs detention facilities, he oversees the services received by the juveniles, he operates protective services and in his spare time, he acts as manager of building maintenance, HR, purchasing, information technology, volunteer services and more.

It doesn’t sound so much like a judge as divinity.

It’s clear from the recommendations by the nonpartisan national group that there’s a number of judicial changes that should be made to improve the administration of justice, such as “one judge/one family” concept that ensures that one person handles all matters related to one family (similar to Nashville/Davidson County).

True To Its Name

Overall, the report’s verdict on Juvenile Court was positive, but several recommendations supported the creation of a new division of children’s advocacy where services could be maximized. For example, the report says that “the juvenile detention center lacks a meaningful education program.” Surely, a government that invests $361 million this year in education could make that happen.

All in all, the 24 recommendations in the National Center for State Courts’ Brief Assessment of the Juvenile Court System in Shelby County are well-documented and logical, and hopefully, Juvenile Court officials will take them to heart and implement them. In fact, just putting in place the recommendations affecting the judicial function is a fulltime job in themselves.

In the meantime, someone should take an entirely new look at youth services in Shelby County, setting aside any loyalty to the traditional system and any motivations that stem from political grudges.

From our perspective, the place to start is the one that makes Juvenile Court true to its name. It is a court system and it leaves all the other services to a division focused on the network of resources that can be applied to every at-risk child in Shelby County.


Anonymous said...

Smart City,

You agree with the recommendations of the National Center study, but fail to mention that the Ad Hoc committee report made most of those same recommendations and month in advance of the report from NCSC. In many cases, the Commission deserves the criticism for its conduct, but in terms of reforms needed in the court, we got many of them right.

To the larger issue of serving children and families, the Bureau of Children, Youth and Families, which is new to county government will hopefully serve as that catalyst. In addition, I am recommending a taskforce to study the viability of a true Family Court, which would include, juvenile issues, child support, domestic violence, divorce, adoption. Such a court could potentially do a better job of serving the overall needs of families and making decisions that don't just impact an individual, but focus on the rehabilitation of families.

Mike Carpenter
County Commissioner

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner: We fear that the philosophy behind the Bureau of Children, Youth and Families is as bureaucratic as its name. A new division wouldn't be so much about operating programs as driving innovative policies and breakthrough strategies that are now missing from the discussion.

Thanks for the email.

Anonymous said...

Turfism seems to be at the heart of of challenges that we experience with the delivery of of youth services. Serious coordination of efforts would reduce fragmentation and compound fiscal investments to improve the lives of our youth.

Who commissioned the three studies of the Juvenile Court? How will the study results be used?

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with the "turfism" assessment. Other communities have succesfully begun to think about and implement "Systems of Care" and "Wrap Around" models that have been developed over the last twenty years. The way in which local organizations get their backs up and seem to fear that someone else might do something for kids is an indictment of the entire community. Unfortunately the newly created Office of Youth Services in the city hasnt done much and neither has the county office. How do we get youth organization leaders in the community, to include elected leaders, to move beyond this myopic approach and move forward? Wish we had a clear answer for this question.

Anonymous said...

Carpenter still hasn't explained why he's voting with the Democrats.

Anonymous said...

Though I know better....

To "anonymous" who wants to know why I am voting with the Democrats, it must be easy to hide behind a blog where you don't have to identify who you are to throw bombs. If you would like to talk to me about any of my more than 500 votes, my cell number is on my business cards. You can reach me at 331-0153 or e-mail me directly at

I don't vote with any group of people. My decisions are data-driven and conscience-driven. I wasn't elected to play your partisan games, but to do what I believe to be in the best interest of Shelby County. I have regularly explained my votes in the media and directly to constituents and will continue to take ownership of the decisions I make.

Mike Carpenter

Smart City Consulting said...

As for us, we may have a difference of opinion with Commissioner Carpenter about some Juvenile Court issues, but the notion that commissioners should be voting in partisan blocs is malignant. If anything, he has positioned himself as a commissioner who is willing to be a bridge between the various sides, and that's a good thing for the commission and for taxpayers.

Smart City Consulting said...

Oh, by the way, Commissioner Carpenter also earns our respect by taking the time to post comments and present his positions. In his willingness to have that kind of discussion with the public on blogs, he has truly differentiated himself from his peers.

Anonymous said...

The Memphis Juvenile Court System is a FARCE! My daughter has been trying for 4 years to collect child support for her 4 yerar old child from the DEAD-Beat Dad who is a practicing Memphis attorney. The Memphis Juvenile Court has continued her case numerous times for over a year due to the Dead-Beat Dads excuses. The last continuace was because the court date would interfere with the Judges Thanksgiving plans so the judge continued the case till 1/16/09. Who is Juvenile Court working for? The Dead Beat Dad or the Dead Beat Judges? It certainly is not working to make sure the children are provided for.

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