Memphis filmmakers shine a light on the juvenile justice system

Special confidentiality protections afforded to juveniles can make cases opaque and allow injustice to fester. Two Memphis-based filmmakers are sharing narratives of people affected by the juvenile justice system in an effort to inspire policy change. 

In October 2016, police arrested a 16 year-old in Jackson, Mississippi for domestic abuse and assault after an argument with his family became physical.

Jeremy, the teenage offender, was taken in alone and was never read his rights nor provided with a public defender. He was released after being detained for a week in a juvenile facility.

Memphis knows Jeremy’s story thanks to the work of Memphis-based filmmakers Joann Self Selvidge and Sarah Fleming, who are collecting stories across the nation about the realities of the juvenile criminal justice system. They call this collection of short films and stories The Juvenile Project. A few of the one hundred stories they plan to collect will make it into their first feature-length film together.

Their larger goal is to shed a light on injustice in the juvenile detention system and campaign for policy that encourages rehabilitative rather than punitive justice.

The Memphis-based filmmakers originally intended to focus solely on Memphis’ juvenile detention system, where 82.5 percent of incarcerated children are black.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice formally denounced that apparent racial bias in a landmark censure against the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County. Through their work, the filmmakers hope the shine a light on injustices against criminal offenders both locally and nationally.

Viola - A Mother's Story of Juvenile Justice from True Story Pictures on Vimeo.

Fleming and Self Selvidge have recently expanded their scope to show that the injustices are systemic and not particular to any one location by amplifying the experiences of the youth, families and attorneys who have had contact with juvenile systems across the country.

“We started to think that if we are trying to do a film about the state of the juvenile justice system, we could go bigger. This is not just a Memphis story,” said Self Selvidge.

Fleming and Self Selvidge continue to meet with advocates and families with experience inside the juvenile justice system in order to find stories that will highlight the major injustices in the system, such as discriminatory practices and the infringement of the juveniles’ constitutional rights to due process, counsel, and against self-incrimination.

They release these short interviews intermittently on their website, So far, they have released three shorts and ten stories. Once their funding is secure and they have chosen a few people to be their focus, they plan to begin their production of the full-length film beginning in spring 2018.

Fleming said that filming juvenile offenders is difficult because of protections against access. Juvenile records and courtroom proceedings are closed and confidential for the protection of the minors. Additionally, filming subjects under 18 requires the cooperation of a guardian.

Fleming and Self Selvidge became interested in telling the stories of incarcerated youth in 2009 when the civil rights division of the Department of Justice investigated the general court in Shelby County and uncovered violations of constitutional law as well as racial disparities at multiple points of contact within the juvenile justice system.

“So, it’s very challenging. We decided to work within the community to establish ourselves as people who are not out there just to exploit people for their stories,” Fleming added.

A partnership with the National Juvenile Defenders Center in Washington, D.C. made the filmmakers’ first foray outside of Memphis possible, while bringing that unique storytelling model to a broader audience.

The NJDC, a nonprofit that advocates for juveniles’ right to counsel and trains attorneys to defend juveniles, underwrote the filmmakers’ travel to St. Louis; Sommerville, Tenn. and the Mississippi cities of Jackson and Oxford.

The recorded interviews, which were produced by Self Selvidge and Fleming, are part of NJDC’s Gault at 50 campaign, which connects decades of juvenile detention policy to the country’s current state where one million juveniles are incarcerated each year. Additionally, 31 states do not have any laws determining how young is too young to prosecute a child and 33 states do not allow jury trial for juveniles.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Gault decision, which guarantees juveniles the right to counsel, notice of charges, confrontation of witnesses and privilege against self-incrimination. The author of the decision is Memphis native Abe Fortas who also wrote the Gideon decision, which gave citizens the right to an attorney even if they cannot afford one and established the office of the public defender. 

An imperfect protection

The story of Jeremy, the 16-year-old from Jackson, Miss., has striking parallels with the story of 15-year-old Gerald Gault who, during his summer break in 1964, made an obscene phone call to his neighbor. He was arrested, put in a juvenile detention center without his parents’ knowledge, questioned by a judge without the presence of a lawyer and sentenced to six years without an official trial. Gault later appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Although juveniles are now afforded the same constitutional rights as adults, they are not always upheld, and the special confidentiality protections afforded to juveniles can make cases opaque.

Without the ability to access court records or observe court room proceedings, cases involving injustice can fester.

Through their work with The Juvenile Project, the Memphis-based filmmakers hope to give juvenile offenders a voice in their experiences.

Barbara, public defender's story of juvenile justice from Cat and Fish on Vimeo.

 “Unfortunately, what has been protecting the children has also been protecting the perpetrators of this over-penalized system in that, because the courts are closed, because people don’t share their stories, there’s also no transparency,” said Self-Selvidge. “There are no lights being shined on what is wrong.”

Gault was decided during a progressive era of the criminal justice movement that grew throughout the 1960s. During that time, advocates favored a juvenile system that rehabilitated delinquent youth and kept them out of the adult system.  

That time was short-lived.

The Nixon administration adopted a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice, borne out of the 1970s panic about rising crime rates. Since then, states have consistently passed laws to make it easier to try juveniles as adults, put more people in jail and lengthen sentences.

In the 1990s, 31 states passed laws expanding sentencing options to include more punitive measures like longer sentences or transfer to the adult system. During the same period, 47 states modified confidentiality provisions for juvenile courts making proceedings less confidential and 22 states passed laws increasing the victim's role in juvenile court processing, shifting the focus from the rehabilitation of the juvenile to retribution against the suffering of the victim.

Overall, these laws have led to more juveniles in jail, longer sentences, and a higher racial disparity.

Shelby County Public Defender Stephen Bush says Fleming and Self Selvidge’s work confirms the same conclusions as years of third-party research. Namely that community-based interventions that are specific to the developmental stage of juveniles produces better outcomes than more punitive measures like detention.

“Of the interviews I’ve seen so far, it’s evident that these kids have already experienced a great deal of trauma in their young lives,” Bush said of the filmmaker’s footage. “Detention is harmful and should always be the last option. In fact, locking a kid up may very well guarantee a trajectory straight into the adult system.”

A local burden

Fleming and Self Selvidge became interested in telling the stories of incarcerated youth in 2009 when the civil rights division of the Department of Justice investigated the general court in Shelby County and uncovered violations of constitutional law as well as racial disparities at multiple points of contact within the juvenile justice system.

Joann Self Selvidge interviews Billy Harris for The Juvenile Project

According to their 2012 report, the DOJ found that “JCMSC (Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County) fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children of all races.”

“In addition, we find that JCMSC’s administration of justice discriminates against Black children,” the report reads. “Further, we find that JCMSC violates the substantive due process rights of detained youth by not providing them with reasonably safe conditions of confinement.”

The report goes on to note that the JCMSC did not notify juveniles of their charges before hearings, that juveniles were not read their Miranda rights, and that magistrates transferred juveniles to the adult system without due process.

When the two parties finalized a memorandum of agreement in December 2012, Shelby County was the first jurisdiction in the country that had made such an agreement with the DOJ to lay out and enact solutions to the injustices found in the system.

Racial disparity, along with discriminatory disparities for girls, LGBTQ juveniles, the mentally ill, and the disabled are the core areas Self Selvidge and Fleming hope to address in their feature length documentary.

They are also concerned with the transferring of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system and the lack of legal representation afforded to juvenile defendants.

Through eliciting personal narratives, the filmmakers also hope to illustrate the school to prison pipeline, which criminalizes bad behavior at school and disproportionately affects black students, a group that is nearly 3.5 times more likely to be arrested at school than their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“This happens across the country to children from all different backgrounds,” said Self Selvidge. “But just like in the adult system, when this happens to people with resources and power, those children are privy to treatment that people who are poor or people of color do not receive. They get deferred out of the system.”

“The biggest takeaway we want is for people to understand that the answer to dealing with juveniles should be an approach that reflects how the court was originally established, which was rehabilitation and reentrance into society and being in their community."

“And then you add on layers of additional discrimination. So, children with disabilities, mental health issues, behavioral issues, if they are children who are LGBT, if they are girls—it goes from being something that has disparity to something very extreme in the way their rights are infringed,” she added.

The filmmakers plan to film in places that are hotspots for reform as well as hotspots of miscarriages of justice, including Missouri where children are serving life without parole sentences, which has been ruled unconstitutional at the federal level.

Through their work, they’ve found many cases where an attorney was not assigned to a juvenile and public offenders who do not fully understand the differences between the juvenile and adult justice system.

The promise of reform

The filmmakers hope their documentary will inspire viewers to lobby their local jurisdictions and representatives to push for rehabilitative instead of punitive justice, though they do believe that work may already be underway as many justice officials across the country are beginning to take a “smart on crime” approach to juvenile justice. 

“The biggest takeaway we want is for people to understand that the answer to dealing with juveniles should be an approach that reflects how the court was originally established, which was rehabilitation and reentrance into society and being in their community. The system needs to be what it was supposed to be,” Fleming said.

Self-Selvidge said that a smart on crime approach transforms juvenile incarceration systems into models that “help children return to their communities, to be in therapeutic environments where they can have a chance and have opportunities to turn themselves around for the better, which contributes to healthier communities and the bottom line of every criminal justice system.”

Fleming and Self Selvidge are concerned with the rhetoric pushing for more “tough on crime” policies coming from the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the DOJ. Self Selvidge noted that there has been a lot of pushback from criminal justice reform advocates in every region of the country.

“The promise of juvenile justice reform is that our courts become increasingly fair and effective,” says Shelby County Public Defender Bush.

“This happens only when courts ensure every child has a properly trained lawyer, and our courts are committed to adjudicating children in ways that are both safe and developmentally appropriate.”

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901. 
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