The Justice Department has targeted Mississippi in a federal lawsuit alleging that the due process rights of children "repeatedly and routinely" are violated when arrested for minor offenses, accusing officials of operating a "school to prison pipeline" that singles out blacks and juveniles with disabilities.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Jackson, Miss., names the state of Mississippi; the city of Meridian, Miss.; Lauderdale County, Miss.; and judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court, alleging violations of the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
"The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children's constitutional rights."
The complaint said children in Meridian have been systematically arrested by police and incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law. It said the students most affected by this system are blacks and those with disabilities.
According to the complaint, the children:
• Are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity — or lack thereof — of the alleged offense or probation violation.
• Are incarcerated before adjudication in the Lauderdale County system and regularly wait more than 48 hours for a probable cause hearing, in violation of federal constitutional requirements.
• Make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their Miranda rights and without making an informed waiver of those rights.
According to the complaint, Lauderdale County does not consistently afford children meaningful representation by an attorney during the juvenile justice process, including in preparation for and during detention, adjudication and disposition hearings.
An investigation by the department's Civil Rights Division, completed in August, said state, city and county officials violated the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits a pattern or practice of deprivation of civil rights in the administration of juvenile justice. In its findings letter, the department said it was willing to engage in "meaningful negotiations to remedy the identified violations," but that state, city and county officials "have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations."
In response to the August investigation, officials in Lauderdale County and Meridian called the findings "one-sided," saying they were based on an unprofessional investigation undertaken by inexperienced staff. They also said in a letter to the Justice Department that investigators had received unreliable information, interviewed only "a few" families and reached conclusions based on unsubstantiated claims.
Meridian is the county seat of Lauderdale County, which has a population of about 80,000. The 2010 census said the county is about 60 percent white and 38 percent black.
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