By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The question of whether county officials can release confidential juvenile court records to the U.S. Department of Justice is likely to be decided by a judge in federal court.
DOJ filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, youth court judges Veldore Young and Frank Coleman, as well as the Mississippi Department of Youth Services in connection with what the Justice Department calls a school to prison pipeline in which juveniles' constitutional rights are routinely violated.
Following an eight-month investigation into the juvenile justice process, DOJ released its findings in August, accusing the Youth Court judges and DYS of Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendment violations and threatened to file suit if meaningful negotiations were not reached within 60 days. In a statement Wednesday, after the lawsuit had been filed, DOJ officials said the local and state agencies involved have not been cooperative.
They had asked local officials to release the juvenile records of some 77 people who had been through the Youth Court process so DOJ could further investigate the claims.
Local and state officials have said they could not release juvenile records, according to law, without written permission from each of the juveniles' parents or guardians, or the person involved, in cases where the juvenile is now an adult. Or, local officials have said, they could release the records if DOJ produced a federal court order.
As to the claim that local officials have been uncooperative, Rick Barry, attorney for Lauderdale County, said they have cooperated.
"We have tried to cooperate from day one," Barry said. "We still thought we were trying to cooperate. We thought we had a conference call set up this morning (Thursday). We were going to try to deal with the issue but we've told them from day one that we cannot turn over to you the confidential juvenile records short of a consent of a parent or an adult or a federal court order. We've been consistent in that."
Barry also referred to a letter sent to the DOJ in March from the Mississippi Attorney General's Office regarding the release of information.
The letter, from Harold E. Pizzetta III, assistant Attorney General for the Mississippi Attorney General's Office, said: "State law governs to whom and under what circumstances the Administrative Office of the Courts may release those records. Providing confidential youth court records in response to your letter would be contrary to state law."
Barry said the DOJ is aware of the situation the officials are in.
"We cannot do that and they know that," Barry said. "To say that we have been uncooperative, I just don't think that's a correct statement because we have."
As far as the allegations that led to the investigation goes, Barry said DOJ has not provided specifics.
"If there are constitutional violations out there dealing with our kids in this county, we're going to fix that problem, I promise you," Barry said. "But they've got to give us some specifics so we can investigate it ourselves. To date, all we've gotten are allegations. We don't have any specifics."
Barry said DOJ gave them the list of the 77 names and local officials were willing to contact them to ask for permission to release the information.
"We were going to do the work for them," Barry said. "We were going to say, 'OK, the Justice Department wants to look at your record. Will you sign a consent and let us turn it over to them?' We never got to that point."
However, attorneys for DOJ said state and local officials can release the information.
On a public conference call on Thursday evening, federal officials took questions about the lawsuit. The privacy issue was among the questions asked of them.
Al Jernigan, Assistant U.S. Attorney of the Southern District Court in Mississippi said the courts are empowered to issue protective orders.
"The courts can look at data, they can look at things that are protected by the Privacy Act and by the Mississippi statutes. That information can be made available to the courts," Jernigan said. "There is an exception for judicial proceedings to those privacy rights ... Under the Youth Court Act, the disclosure is allowed under circumstances that affect the health and safety of the child."
"We believe all of these factors together give us the authority to present this case without violating any child's rights," he said.
Moreover, Jernigan said federal law allows disclosure of the records.
"We operate under the same privacy standards that the Justice Department operates nationwide. We're not going to violate the very privacy standards that we protect in other contexts," Jernigan said. "We're used to handling confidential information, whether it's personal identifiers or defense secrets. That's what the Justice Department does. We're good at it and we have a right to see this. I think what we're going to do is to get a federal court to issue an order to disclose and then we will go forward from there."