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Just City Memphis demands changes in the juvenile court system

The nonprofit released a 76-page independent report detailing how Black juveniles are targeted in Shelby County.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With two 15-year-olds now likely to be charged as adults in the killing of pastor Eason-Williams – at least one group of activists said it’s another example of how we’re failing black children in Shelby County.  

Just City Memphis, a nonprofit that works to create equality in the criminal justice system and push for reform, released an independent report about how juveniles are incarcerated on Monday, July 26, targeting the juvenile court judge in the report.

The Department of Justice started monitoring Shelby County Juvenile Court a decade ago, citing many violations. One of DOJ's findings revealed that Black people were disproportionately more likely to be punished in juvenile detention centers.

Four years ago, the DOJ felt the juvenile court had made many improvements, giving them no reason to keep the system under the court order.  

But, Just City wanted to see juvenile court's progress for itself, so it commissioned an outside expert to investigate the youth justice system in Shelby County. 

The investigation took months to complete, and the nonprofit's Executive Director, Josh Spickler, said according to the 76-page report, more can be done.  

"There's a lack of system here so when we talk about a youth justice system, there really isn't one," Spickler said.

Spickler said Shelby County has a long way to go to build a humane and fair youth justice system. One of the organization's biggest concerns is that of all the youth who are tried as adults, a vast majority of them are black. 

"It is the worst sentence possible to send a child into the adult system," Spickler said. "So the ramification for the rest of that child are impossible to calculate, but it's nearly catastrophic." 

Just City is demanding Shelby County’s juvenile court system transfer fewer offenders to adult court, try harder to rehabilitate them, and to do better at protecting their rights.

But Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael sees the whole thing as political, pointing out the report was released just ten days before an election.

Judge Micheal said this in a statement.

"The executive director of just city has been openly working with my opponent and has been receiving large sums of money from a radical out-of-town organization that is pushing to free all criminals from jail. They are opposed to the transfer of all juveniles to adult court, even a 17-year-old who has committed rape or murder. This report is a last-minute campaign attack and not a thoughtful look at the great progress we have made reforming the court." 

Judge Michael now wants federal and state officials to investigate Just City’s nonprofit status. 

In response, Spickler told ABC24 that the 76-page report speaks for itself.

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