Legislature must rewrite entire Juvenile Code

Mae Quinn, JD, professor of law

On Friday, July 31, the United States Department of Justice issued breathtaking and heartbreaking findings in its long-awaited investigation of the St. Louis County Juvenile Court. Its detailed 60-page report sheds official light on many of the legal issues my law clinic students and I have encountered and been vigorously challenging in our local juvenile courts over the last six years. It also provides an important road map for immediate and future reforms to improve the life chances of children – not just in St. Louis County, but across the state.

While my students and I have worked with a good number of caring and committed judges, prosecutors and probation staff in the St. Louis region, we have also repeatedly been shocked by standard court practices – in the county and elsewhere – that work to undermine basic constitutional rights to due process, representation and zealous advocacy.

More than this, the very structure of the system runs counter to basic constitutional separation of powers norms — where everyone but the child and her lawyer (when one is present) is part of the same team. In such a culture, it is next to impossible to meaningfully advocate for children — largely poor youth of color — who are already at risk in this community.

Further skewing the odds, misplaced funding priorities in Missouri have rendered our public defender system largely incapable of zealously defending the large number of cases coming through our juvenile courts each year. Instead, as the National Juvenile Defender Center’s 2013 Assessment of the Missouri juvenile justice system noted, representation is rationed by our over-worked public defender system.  And kids — some of the most vulnerable persons in our courts — feel this unfairness the most.

I am hopeful this investigation – like other recent findings and reports that have been issued by DOJ, the Ferguson Commission’s working groups and others – will serve as an engine for change in the region. As with other issues, it is important for us to consider long-term goals. But it is also clear we need emergency intervention to bring some semblance of sanity to a system that, as I write this, is violating the rights of countless children of color in this community.

Read full article in St. Louis American