For many years, child advocates have described the existence of a “school-to-prison pipeline.” The Civil Rights Department of the U.S. Justice Department may finally have taken notice of its existence.
The Justice Department recently released a letter of findings, explaining that the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services are violating the constitutional rights of juveniles.
As the Department’s press release explains: “The department’s investigation found reasonable cause to believe that these agencies have violated the constitutional due process rights of children in the city of Meridian and the county of Lauderdale under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.” The release further explains:
The department’s investigation showed that the agencies have helped to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution. The department’s findings show that children in Lauderdale County have been routinely and repeatedly incarcerated for allegedly committing school disciplinary infractions and are punished disproportionately, without constitutionally required procedural safeguards. Children have also been arrested at school for offenses as minor as defiance. Furthermore, children on probation are routinely arrested and incarcerated for allegedly violating their probation by committing minor school infractions, such as dress code violations, which result in suspensions. The department’s investigation showed that students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities.
The Justice Department found a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct in several areas, including:
- Failure by MPD to adequately assess probable cause that an unlawful offense has been committed prior to arresting children at local schools;
- Failure by the Lauderdale County Youth Court to provide children with proper procedural due process, including by making untimely and inadequate probable cause determinations;
- Failure by the Lauderdale County Youth Court and the Mississippi DYS to provide children procedural due process rights in the probationary process, especially with regard to alleged probation violations; and
- Failure by all entities to ensure substantive due process for children on probation by incarcerating children for school disciplinary offenses without any procedural safeguards.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to seeing the rule of law applied to all citizens fairly and equally,” said Gregory Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. “We hope to be able to resolve the civil rights violations found by the Justice Department in a way that benefits all the people of Meridian and Lauderdale County, including those children who are being treated unfairly by the juvenile justice system.”
The letter, authored by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, details a process that begins when the Meridian Police Department automatically arrests all students who are referred to the police by the Meridian Public School District for disciplinary infractions, including such things as dress code violations.
The police “do not assess the facts or circumstances of the alleged charge, or whether the alleged conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense.” Rather, they serve as a “taxi service” from the schools to the juvenile detention center, “routinely” handcuffing and arresting students without custody orders or an independent determination of probable cause. After the student reaches the detention center, an intake officer issues a “temporary” custody order, and then a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge holds a hearing and issues a detention order — again without a probable cause finding. These proceedings also violate federal law requiring that children taken into custody receive detention hearings within 48 hours, as Meridian’s juvenile court hearings are held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Incredibly, during the course of its eight-month investigation, the Civil Rights Division unsuccessfully sought access to Meridian juvenile court records, as well as an opportunity to speak with its personnel. Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young, together with County officials, refused to allow DOJ to observe court proceedings, interview staff, or review case files.
They also directed the city to deny the Department of Justice access to the law enforcement records of the children referred by the schools to the Meridian Police Department. Although DOJ seeks “meaningful negotiations” with the involved agencies and believes that a “collaborative approach” to resolving the violations “would be productive,” a federal lawsuit against state, county, and local officials will be filed if “expeditious” progress is not made.