On a recent day at Shelby County Juvenile Court, 60 kids were detained for charges ranging from aggravated robbery to second degree murder. When the court was founded a century ago, kids were taken in for very different reasons.
“In the early 1900s, they’d pick up kids for smoking cigarettes on the street or catcalling and harassing people. Crime is a lot different now because kids use guns,” said filmmaker Willie Bearden, who created a documentary on the history of Shelby County Juvenile Court to mark the court’s centennial.
Bearden’s film will premiere at the court’s invitation-only centennial ceremony on Thursday, September 30th. But people can watch 100 Years of Juvenile Court at home on WKNO when it screens on the same night at 7:30 p.m. Other public events include the “Right Road Run” 5K and a Victorian Village homecoming picnic on October 2nd. Memphis Juvenile Court (as it was called before its consolidation in 1968) was founded in 1910 and is believed to be the third juvenile court established in the country after Chicago (1899) and Denver (1905).
In the court’s early days, it operated with one judge and five probation officers. Today, the court still has only one judge but includes 10 magistrates who hear cases and about 50 probation officers. Only four judges have presided over the court since its founding — Camille Kelly, Elizabeth McCain, Kenneth Turner, and present-day judge Curtis Person.
“Judge Turner really revolutionized the court,” Bearden said. “He desegregated the court in 1964, several years before that was common in the South. He felt like justice was colorblind.” Turner, who served from 1964 to 2006, ordered some offenders to be spanked, a practice that’s no longer in place today. But spanking is mild compared to how children were treated before the establishment of the juvenile court system.
“At the turn of the [last] century, kids as young as 7 and 8 years old were being put into jail with adults. They weren’t treated specially,” Bearden said. “Women’s groups, like the Nineteenth Century Club, started lobbying government to do something about delinquent, neglected, and abused children.”
Today, the court still handles both delinquent and neglected or abused kids. According to Larry Scroggs, chief administrative officer and chief counsel of Shelby County Juvenile Court, neglected kids in the early 1900s relied on non-governmental social support groups, but such organizations could be inconsistent in their ability to help.
“We do about 4,000 of the dependency and neglect cases per year where kids are taken from a home because of something like domestic violence or sheer neglect. We’ve had quite a few kids caught up in meth lab situations,” Scroggs said.
As far as delinquency cases go, Scroggs said the court’s numbers have actually declined in recent years. The court saw almost 18,000 cases in 2009, down from a peak of 25,000 cases five years ago.
Scroggs said the court has begun making an effort not to detain kids for minor offenses. “Ten years ago, there weren’t as many violent offenses, but there were kids housed here for lesser charges,” Scroggs said. “Our processes are changing so that we can keep kids from getting deeper into the system, which is better for them and everybody.”