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On November 18, 2013, the DOJ opened an investigation of the St. Louis County Family Court in Missouri. This investigation was initiated pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141, which authorizes the Department of Justice (DOJ) to seek remedies for patterns or practices of conduct that violate the constitutional or federal statutory rights of children in the administration of juvenile justice.
The DOJ investigated whether the St. Louis County Family Court failed to ensure that children appearing for juvenile justice proceedings received adequate due process, as required under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, and whether it engaged in conduct that violated the Equal Protection Clause.
The DOJ examined 33,000 cases, including all delinquency and status offenses resolved in the St. Louis County Family Court from 2010 to 2013. The investigators interviewed court personnel such as judges, juvenile officers, and directors of delinquency services, as well as attorneys and parents of young people involved in delinquency proceedings.
On July 31, 2015, the DOJ released a findings letter which concluded that the St. Louis County Family Court violated the Fourteenth Amendment by failing to ensure that juveniles facing delinquency charges received adequate due process protections and failing to provide African-American youth in the juvenile justice system with equal protection under the law.
Specifically, the DOJ found that the Court failed to provide adequate representation for children in delinquency proceedings; failed to adequately protect children's privilege against self-incrimination; failed to provide adequate probable cause determinations to children facing delinquency charges; failed to provide children facing certification to be criminally tried in adult criminal court with adequate due process; and failed to ensure that children's guilty pleas were entered knowingly and voluntarily.
Additionally, the DOJ found that the Court engaged in conduct that violated the Equal Protection rights of African American children: they were disproportionately represented in decisions to formally charge youth instead of handling matters more informally, to detain youth pretrial, to commit youth, under existing Court supervision, to Division of Youth Services custody, and to place youth in a secure Division of Youth Services facility after conviction. The letter concluded that these children were subjected to harsher treatment because of their race.
For example, the DOJ found that Black children were almost 1.46 times more likely than white children to have their cases handled formally, even after introducing control variables such as gender, age, risk factors, and severity of the allegation. When Black children were under the supervision of the Court and violated the conditions equivalent to probation or parole, the Court committed Black children almost three times more to the Missouri Division of Youth Services than white children who were under similar Court supervision.
The DOJ also found several factors that contributed to the court's constitutional deprivation of counsel for youth. Among them were "staggering" caseloads of the public defenders 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, and significant delays in appointing counsel to children following detention hearings.
The DOJ found the structure of St. Louis County Family Court to be conflicted. The findings included: "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 are contrary to separation of powers principles and deprive children of adequate due process."
On December 14, 2016, after 16 months of negotiation, the DOJ reached an agreement with the St. Louis Family Court about how to reform the court’s handling of juvenile delinquency matters. The agreement included several measures to address the court’s due process and equal protection deficiencies.
The Court agreed to double the number of defense attorneys that represent indigent youth, and ensure that defendants get counsel in a timely fashion; undergo specific juvenile defense training for attorneys; establish a clear policy for determining whether a defendant is considered indigent; prohibit police from interrogating defendants at the juvenile detention center unless an attorney is present; prohibit deputy juvenile officers from talking about the case with the defendant, or using incriminating statements the defendant might make in later hearings; conduct probable cause hearings to make sure that there is evidence the child actually committed the offense for which he or she is being charged; standardize plea hearings to ensure that all guilty pleas are made knowingly and voluntarily.
The parties jointly agreed on appointing the Honorable Arthur E. Grim to conduct a compliance review to determine if the St. Louis Family Court had implemented the provisions of the 2016 agreement. Judge Grim conducted a three-day review beginning on April 17, 2017, and assigned one of four standards in evaluating compliance with each of the provisions:
The DOJ conducted additional reviews of the Court’s compliance with the DMC provisions. The parties jointly appointed Mark A. Greenwald as the Subject Matter Expert to head this investigation. In November 2019, Mr. Greenwald found upon conducting his fifth review that all of the DMC provisions met the requirements of substantial compliance. Even though the Court achieved full compliance with the Due Process and DMC provisions of the 2016 agreement, there has not yet been an official press release regarding the overall status of the compliance review.
Ginny Lee (4/7/2017)
Anjali Baliga (4/16/2021)
Cuncannan, Jacqueline (District of Columbia)
Gupta, Vanita (District of Columbia)
Dandurand, Joesph Paul (Missouri)
Greenwald, Mark A. (Pennsylvania)
Grim, Arthur E. (Pennsylvania)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 1:47 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Missouri
Case Ongoing: Yes
U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Special Case Type(s):
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Order Duration: 2016 - None
Content of Injunction:
Jails, Prisons, Detention Centers, and Other Institutions: