The continuing schoolyard bickering between the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person would make for a mildly interesting sitcom except for the fact that tens of thousands of children hang in the balance.

So far, however, neither side has done much to earn the respect of the public who pays the bills for this sad political theater.

On one side, there’s the board of commissioners with its apparent belief that county elected officials forfeit their First Amendment rights to disagree with them and whose new Democratic majority – with one Republican – has bafflingly invested so much of their equity in pursuit of what feels more like a political vendetta than productive public debate.

It’s About The Kids

On the other side is the new Juvenile Court judge – a former state senator with the affected air that comes from too many years in the rarified air of the State Capitol and whose chameleon-like shifts between judge and administrator are ploys to keep him from doing precisely what he expected officials to do when he was a senator – respond directly to legislative inquiry.

Caught in the middle are tens of thousands of at-risk children who deserve better.

Maybe, just maybe, both sides are so fixated on political one-upmanship that they aren’t even seeing the ultimate target – how to best serve the young people of Shelby County.

Aiming Too Low

There’s little question that the commissioners have aimed too low, motivated too much by politics and too little by policy. Perhaps, there’s an answer that puts the emphasis where it belongs – on the children – and it is done by creation of a new division of county government – the Division of Children’s Advocacy.

Just a few statistics underscore the obvious and urgent need:

* 60 percent of children in Memphis live low-income or poverty

* Only 14 percent of children in poverty live with two parents

* 71 percent of students in Memphis City Schools are on free or reduced lunch

* 13 percent of all 16-19 year-olds in Memphis – almost 5,000 young people – are “on the street,” neither in school nor working, and this is the highest percentage of our peer cities

* About 20,000 cases a year are handled by Juvenile Court

Creating A Hub Of Services

Juvenile Court – with its $32.3 million annual budget and 437 employees – merely hints at the depth of county government’s stake in children. Besides the Court, Shelby County is the regional leader – and a major funding source – for early childhood programs, health department programs to fight infant mortality, the newborn center at The Med, Head Start and Memphis City Schools.

In seeking new answers to old problem at Juvenile Court, perhaps the place to start is in ending the Court’s neither fish nor fowl existence. After all, the judicial function is only the tip of the Juvenile Court iceberg, and there’s logic in separating it from its other functions and including them with the other children’s programs funded by county government.

Now, these programs rarely intersect with each other, and as a result, the opportunity for a cohesive, comprehensive strategy for improving the lives of at-risk children is squandered. Also, because of the fragmentation, there’s no overriding sense of accountability that monitors the performance of each and reports to taxpayers about the return on their investments.

A Better Way

For example, there’s no centralized place in county government where the tough questions are asked about city schools, there’s no place where policy analysis is conducted to show where funding returns the biggest dividends and there’s no place where new innovations in leveraging the county investments and in delivering services are developed. As a result, year to year, the various services never undergo the kind of rigorous evaluation that can give birth to better ways of doing business.

Three studies of Juvenile Court later, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners seem stuck so firmly in the past that it’s not yet considered this option. Three reports written for the commissioners – National Center for State Courts, Memphis Bar Association and Juvenile Court Ad Hoc Committee of the Board of Commissioners – all accept the present structure as a given for the future.

It needn’t be.

Division Of Labor

While the Bar Association report is instructive, it largely takes on the tone of a special interest lobby who wants its professional life made easier. Meanwhile, the Ad Hoc Committee report feels more like a star chamber proceeding in light of the commissioners’ previously stated insistence on a second judgeship, and many of its broad brush criticisms could just as easily apply to any county department.

But, the report of the National Center for State Courts issued June 8 is something else altogether. The self-titled “brief assessment” runs for 51 pages, and includes numerous recommendations that can be seen as a mandate for total reform of the system rather than just procedure improvements.

For example, it seems only reasonable that the same person – the Juvenile Court Judge – shouldn’t be in charge of the court system, the correctional system, the social services programs and the public defenders assigned to young defendants.

Checks And Balances

With the principle of checks and balances at the heart of government, it feels like an awful lot of checks and very little balance. After all, the judge supervises seven referees who handle legal proceedings and hearings, he runs detention facilities, he oversees the services received by the juveniles, he operates protective services and in his spare time, he acts as manager of building maintenance, HR, purchasing, information technology, volunteer services and more.

It doesn’t sound so much like a judge as divinity.

It’s clear from the recommendations by the nonpartisan national group that there’s a number of judicial changes that should be made to improve the administration of justice, such as “one judge/one family” concept that ensures that one person handles all matters related to one family (similar to Nashville/Davidson County).

True To Its Name

Overall, the report’s verdict on Juvenile Court was positive, but several recommendations supported the creation of a new division of children’s advocacy where services could be maximized. For example, the report says that “the juvenile detention center lacks a meaningful education program.” Surely, a government that invests $361 million this year in education could make that happen.

All in all, the 24 recommendations in the National Center for State Courts’ Brief Assessment of the Juvenile Court System in Shelby County are well-documented and logical, and hopefully, Juvenile Court officials will take them to heart and implement them. In fact, just putting in place the recommendations affecting the judicial function is a fulltime job in themselves.

In the meantime, someone should take an entirely new look at youth services in Shelby County, setting aside any loyalty to the traditional system and any motivations that stem from political grudges.

From our perspective, the place to start is the one that makes Juvenile Court true to its name. It is a court system and it leaves all the other services to a division focused on the network of resources that can be applied to every at-risk child in Shelby County.