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Settlement Reached To Overhaul Mississippi Juvenile Courts

The Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington.

The U.S. Justice Department has reached a settlement with the state of Mississippi to overhaul the way young people are arrested and processed through the juvenile courts, NPR has learned.

The deal follows a scathing report from federal civil rights investigators who uncovered systemic violations of due process rights of juveniles, some of whom moved into the justice system for minor infractions such as truancy or wearing the wrong clothes to school. Federal authorities sued the state and the city of Meridian in 2012, citing the area as among the worst examples of the "school to prison pipeline."

"Today's announcement really is about ensuring that school disciplinary issues are not inappropriately criminalized in public schools and that when children come into contact with the juvenile justice system, that they are afforded appropriate due process rights," Vanita Gupta, who leads the Justice Department civil rights unit, told NPR in an interview.

The terms of the settlement require city police in Meridian, Miss., to document they have probable cause to take juveniles into custody and bar law enforcement from interviewing those juveniles unless a guardian or defense lawyer is present. The deal also imposes new requirements on probation officers, to make sure young people understand their constitutional rights against self-incrimination.

"These agreements will help protect the children of Meridian from deprivations of educational opportunity as well as due process," said U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis of the Southern District of Mississippi.

The investigation and litigation in Mississippi is part of a stream of cases by the Justice Department's civil rights unit focused on juvenile courts. Gupta said that work represents an effort to "reframe the debate" and shine a light on justice for youth, who often get short-changed when it comes to resources for legal defense.

"The goal really is ... to use these agreements to promote best practices for when children actually come into contact with the system, while addressing the broader question of trying to keep children out of the system to begin with," she added.

Authorities continue to investigate the family court in St. Louis County, Missouri, and the truancy court in Dallas County, Texas, for alleged due process violations.

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