ST. LOUIS (AP) – Children appearing in St. Louis County family courts will be entitled to free legal representation under a program soon to be unveiled by the county’s NAACP chapter.
Details of the program will be unveiled Friday during an NAACP-sponsored community leadership brunch near St. Louis, a week after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report critical of the county’s family court system that handles about 6,000 youth cases each year.
The report on an inquiry launched in 2013 found that black children are treated harsher than whites in family court, and that juveniles often are deprived of their constitutional rights.
The NAACP said the findings are a concern and that it will work with local attorneys to provide gratis help for youths. One attorney has agreed to lead the effort to “provide much needed relief and aid to children that have fallen prey to St. Louis County’s failing family courts,” said Esther Haywood, the county’s NAACP president.
Treatment of the region’s black community drew increased scrutiny after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in St. Louis County’s Ferguson last August. In March, a Justice Department report cited racial bias and profiling in policing as well as a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targets blacks, who make up about two-thirds of Ferguson’s populace.
In the family court’s case, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division analyzed data from nearly 33,000 juvenile cases, scrutinizing court records, transcripts, policies and procedures, and external reports.
The report found that young people accused of wrongdoing in family court often lack adequate legal representation, are held without proper determination of probable cause, and sometimes plead guilty without fully understanding the consequences. It also alleged that black children are nearly 1 1/2 times more likely than whites to have cases handled formally, rather than through diversion or other informal means. They are 2 1/2 times more likely to be detained before going to trial, and three times more likely to be sent to the Division of Youth Services for parole violations.
“As we recognize the one-year anniversary of the tragic events in Ferguson, the launch of this program comes at an ideal time when leaders and citizens are looking for ways to eradicate the systemic forms of racism associated with the educational and criminal justice systems,” said John Gaskin III, an NAACP national board member.
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