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Justice Department sues Mississippi agencies over excessive punishment of students

The U.S. Justice Department alleges in a lawsuit that several governmental entities in Mississippi are violating students' constitutional rights by punishing them excessively for minor offenses and helping to create a "school-to-prison pipeline."

Defendants in the lawsuit are the city of Meridian, Miss.; Lauderdale County, Miss.; judges of the Lauderdale County Youth Court; and the state of Mississippi.

The justice department contends that children in Meridian have been systematically incarcerated for allegedly committing minor offenses, including school disciplinary infractions, and are punished disproportionately without due process of law.

"The students most affected by this system are African-American children and children with disabilities," the department alleges.

The lawsuit asserts that children in Meridian are handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing, regardless of the severity of the alleged offense or probation violation. Children make admissions to formal charges without being advised of their rights against self-incrimination and without making an informed waiver of those rights. In addition, Lauderdale County does not consistently provide children meaningful representation from an attorney during the juvenile justice process, the department says.

"The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law," says Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the 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 justice department issued findings earlier this year regarding Meridian and Lauderdale County after an investigation that began in December 2011. The department found reasonable cause that the defendants were violating 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. Justice officials offered to negotiate to remedy the violations, but the defendant agencies did not respond in a timely manner.

“It is disappointing that the local and state government agencies involved in the administration of juvenile justice in Lauderdale County have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations,” says Gregory Davis, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to making sure that children in the Lauderdale County juvenile justice system are treated in accordance with the Constitution.”

Read the lawsuit. (PDF file, 37 pages).

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