ST. LOUIS (AP) - The U.S. Justice Department is investigating St. Louis County Family Court's compliance with federal civil rights laws and whether its juvenile court system engages in a "systemic pattern or practice that causes harm."
The agency announced Monday that it is examining whether the state's largest circuit court provides due process to all children appearing for delinquency hearings. The investigation will also look at whether the county juvenile justice system provides equal protection to all children, regardless of race.
The department said it plans a detailed inquiry that will include a review of court documents and interviews with community members. Similar investigations by the Special Litigation Section led to operating agreements with juvenile facilities in Los Angeles, Ohio and Puerto Rico. A recent review in Memphis, Tenn., found that found black juveniles were disproportionately transferred for trial as adults and given harsher punishment than white juveniles charged with the same offenses.
"Protecting the constitutional rights of all children appearing in court is critical to achieving our goals of improving juvenile courts, increasing the public's confidence in the juvenile justice system and maintaining public safety," said the acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division, Jocelyn Samuels.
Paul Fox, director of judicial administration for the St. Louis County Circuit Court, said court officials "will cooperate fully." He said the news of the investigation came as a surprise.
"Being a court, we get complaints from time to time," he said. "Half of the people who come here are unhappy because they lost. And half of the people who win are unhappy that they didn't win enough."
"If they've got a better way to do things, we'll listen to them," Fox added.
The special litigation section's website notes that "information (from the community) informs our case selection. We may sometimes use it as evidence in an existing case." And Justice Department spokeswoman Dena Iverson said that "in this case, we received a number of allegations that juveniles' due process and equal protection rights were being violated and determined that the allegations supported the opening of an investigation."
If the federal review finds systemic problems, the county will have an opportunity to follow prescribed steps for improvement. If those efforts are unsuccessful, the department can sue the county in federal court.