An in-depth investigation by the Department of Justice into the St. Louis County Family Court found it "fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children appearing for delinquency proceedings" and especially discriminates against black children, officials announced Friday.
The DOJ's Civil Rights Division, headed by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, carried out the investigation.
"The findings we issue today are serious and compelling," she said in a statement.
She added that Missouri once led the nation in juvenile justice reform when it transitioned to employing a "smaller, treatment-focused system," and that the DOJ is "hopeful" that it will reestablish its place at the helm of that effort.
Some of the issues included a "staggering caseload of the sole public defender assigned to handle all indigent juvenile delinquency cases in the county, an arbitrary system of appointing private attorneys for children who do not qualify for public defender services, the flawed structure of the family court, and significant delays in appointing counsel to children following detention hearings."
The court also coerced minors into self-incrimination, as it requires them to admit to allegations against them in order to receive an informal processing of their case. The DOJ found that this practice "potentially forces a child to be witness against himself in subsequent proceedings."
"The organizational structure of the family court is rife with conflicts of interest," the statement read. "The roles of judge, prosecutor and probation officer are blurred, and positions traditionally held by members of the executive branch are filled by employees who answer to the court's judges."
These conflicts of interest, the DOJ found, don't give children the right to due process.
The inquiry also found that the court's "administration of juvenile justice discriminates against black children." A series of disparate statistics between the treatment of black and white children at various points in the justice system supported the charge.
Compared to white minors, black youth were found to be 1.46 times more likely to have their cases handled formally, as opposed to "diversion or other means."
Black children were also found to enter pre-trial detainment 2.5 times more often than white children.
"When black children are under the supervision of the court and violate the conditions equivalent to probation or parole, the court commits black children almost three times (2.86) more often to the Missouri Division of Youth Services than white children" in similar positions, the statement read.
The Civil Rights Division division analyzed all delinquency and status offenses resolved in the St. Louis County Family Court between 2010 and 2013; more than 14,000 pages of documents, which included the family court records for more than 120 children; and proceedings from approximately 70 court hearings.
They also conducted interviews with judges, commissioners, juvenile officers, public defenders and private attorneys; and the parents whose children had been to court.
"This investigation is another step toward our goal of ensuring that children in the juvenile justice system receive their constitutionally guaranteed rights to due process and equal protection under the law," Gupta said.
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the St. Louis County Family Court for comment.
Tamerra Griffin is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based Nairobi, Kenya.
Contact Tamerra Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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