The U.S. Department of Justice is ending its oversight of the St. Louis County Family Court, saying the court is now in compliance with a 2016 agreement meant to ensure the fair treatment of juveniles, especially black juveniles.
The Family Court last week released a letter dated Dec. 16 in which Steven Rosenbaum, chief of the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section, wrote that the required reforms had been implemented.
“We recognize the hard work that the Family Court has put into protecting the due process and equal protection rights of youth in juvenile justice proceedings through changed policies and practices,” Rosenbaum wrote.
The Justice Department didn’t immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
The department began investigating the court in November 2013. The investigation was unrelated to the unrest that followed the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson on Aug. 9, 2014, a shooting that led to months of unrest and spurred scrutiny of other courts in the St. Louis area.
The Justice Department’s family court investigation cited racial inequities in the treatment of defendants and concerns that defendants’ constitutional rights were often violated. The 2016 agreement required several changes, including doubling the number of defense attorneys available to represent indigent youths and ensuring that defense lawyers were appointed in a timely manner and properly trained.
The deal also barred police interrogations at the juvenile detention center unless an attorney for the youth was present, and it stressed that authorities make sure juveniles understand their rights before they can waive them. The family court also was required to adopt standardized hearings to ensure that juveniles’ pleas to delinquency charges are voluntary.
Family Court Administrative Judge Margaret T. Donnelly said the court also expanded its collaboration with schools, police agencies, faith-based groups and advocacy organizations.
“Our judges and every member of the Family Court staff are dedicated to ensuring that juveniles’ constitutional rights and best interests are protected at every step of the legal process,” Donnelly said in a statement. “We also are committed to maintaining community safety, repairing harm done to victims and focusing on accountability for juveniles. Going forward, we will continue the partnerships we have built to ensure that court-involved youth obtain the services they need to develop into responsible adults.”