St. Louis justice system rife with conflicts of interest, bias against black children – report

© Lucy Nicholson
Following a nearly two-year probe, the Justice Department found the St. Louis justice system rife with conflicts of interest. Courts have reportedly deprived children of legal representation and treated African-American children more harshly than whites.

The findings we issue today are serious and compelling,” Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Having investigating 33,000 juvenile cases since beginning its probe in November 2013, the Justice Department found that the St. Louis County Family court system had committed multiple constitutional violations, including failing to ensure that children accused of wrongdoing had legal representation. The report stated that children had been held without properly determining probable cause, and that juvenile offenders had sometimes pleaded guilty without fully understanding the consequences.

The report also said that African-American children were especially singled out for harsher treatment. They were nearly 1.5 times more likely than whites to have their cases handled formally, 2.5 times more likely to be detained before trial, and three times more likely to be sent to the family court’s Division of Youth Services for parole violations, the report said.

In short, black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race,” Gupta wrote in a letter addressed to Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, the St. Louis County Executive, and the Family Court Administration Judge, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Gupta said there were several factors contributing to the problems and violations. A sole public defender being assigned to handling a “staggering caseload of delinquency cases” was cited as one reason, and an “arbitrary” system of determining who gets a public defender was listed as another, among other issues.

She also criticized the court’s organizational structure, in which “the probation officer acts as both an arm of the prosecution as well as a child advocate.” That setup is “contrary to separation of powers principles,” said Gupta.

Nixon called the report “deeply concerning,” according to AP.

Justice Department officials met with court officials on Thursday to go over their findings and are pursuing an agreement on reforms, federal officials said.

The report comes after a similarly harsh critique by the Justice Department of the municipal court system and policing practices in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson released in March. The report found that police officers routinely targeted African-American residents for traffic stops and tickets, exploiting them to raise revenue through traffic fines and fees.

In the aftermath of its publication, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned. The findings also led to the firing of one police officer and the resignation of two others, as well as the firing of the county clerk and a judge. The city manager was also told to step down after a City Council vote.

READ MORE: Ferguson hires its first African-American interim police chief

The report came after Ferguson and the St. Louis area become a touchstone for civil rights activists protesting police and court treatment of minorities after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in August 2014 by a white Ferguson police officer.

The officer was not charged in the killing, and sometimes-violent protests and clashes with police rocked the region for months.

More protests are planned next week in the St. Louis area around the August 9 one-year anniversary of Brown’s death.