DOJ Increases Juvenile Justice Oversight: Meridian, MS in the Crosshairs

Mississippi State Capitol

Mississippi State Capitol with Confederate Flag

I’m from the South so when I think of Meridian, MS the first thing that comes to mind is the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed that year by white supremacists. It was a major rallying point for the civil rights struggles of the period.

Forty-seven years later the Department of Justice has Meridian in it’s sights because of the alleged targeting of black students by both law enforcement and school officials. It would seem that race is still a major issue, a fact unsurprising to those of us who have visited the town.

Jess Bravin, blogger for the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, takes look at some of the details:

The department is investigating whether city and county authorities have a “pattern or practice” of violating the youths’ constitutional rights, specifically the 14thAmendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection of the law, and the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Department officials said the allegations involve a ‘very tight relationship’ between the schools and the juvenile court that works to put black students under law enforcement supervision. Black students cited ‘for very minor infractions end up in front of a juvenile judge,’ who then sentences them to probation contingent on compliance with school rules, an official said. That way, ‘kids who’ve been out of school uniform by wearing the wrong color jacket or shirt’ can be sent to juvenile hall for a probation violation. White students allegedly are treated more leniently for similar behavior, officials said.

Unequal enforcement with a core of racial bias is a far too familiar story in the Deep South. Whether this proves to be the case with the current state of affairs in Meridian or not the city’s past history engenders a highly critical initial attitude.

This investigation is the Civil Rights Division’s second ever into juvenile justice, and officials have stated that others will probably be following close to it’s heels.

Braven notes that the invesitagtion is proceeding under the 14th Amendment. That’s the amendment that authorizes the feds to stop states from violating individual constitutional rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 specifically prohibit juvenile justice agencies from violating young people’s constitutional rights and codify the Justice Department’s enforcement authority in these cases.

Civil Rights Division chief, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez weighed in on the subject in no uncertain terms:

‘The juvenile justice system should not serve as a stop on the way to the adult prison system,’ Mr. Perez said. ‘This is why the department is committed to investigating Meridian schools for allegations that children are being severely punished for the most minor infractions of school rules. This would be an abuse of the justice system and clearly unconstitutional.’

Not only is it unconstitutional, but it is also a clear recipe for recidivism. If the allegations are correct Meridian is doing exactly what it needs to do in order to create hardened criminals rather than rehabilitated members of society. Add in the racial angle and this could be an explosive investigation.

We will be monitoring the investigation and report back when there is further news.

Image Source: Ken Lund on Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license

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