MERIDIAN, MISSISSIPPI – The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has released investigative findings determining that children in predominantly black Meridian, Miss. have had their constitutional rights violated by the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services in what civil rights investigators allege is a school to prison pipeline with even dress code violations resulting in incarceration.
The Justice Department has been investigating the agencies since December 2011 and found that the police department arrests children without probable cause, violating the children’s Fourth Amendment protections of unlawful search and seizure.
Also in the findings letter the Civil Rights Division alleges that “Lauderdale County and the Youth Court Judges violate the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to provide children procedural due process in the youth court. Lauderdale County, the Youth Court judges, and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services violate the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to provide children procedural due process rights in the probationary process.”
The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect against abuse of government authority in legal proceedings and fairness of due process rights, respectively.
“The system established by the City of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and DYS to incarcerate children for school suspensions ‘shocks the conscience,’ resulting in the incarceration of children for alleged ‘offenses’ such as dress code violations, flatulence, profanity, and disrespect.” The Justice Department findings letter noted.
Describing the “school-to-prison pipeline” the Justice Department findings letter noted of the alleged abuses by the police, “By policy and practice, [the Meridian Police Department] MPD automatically arrests all students referred to MPD by the District. The children arrested by MPD are then sent to the County juvenile justice system, where existing due process protections are illusory and inadequate. The Youth Court places children on probation, and the terms of the probation set by the Youth Court and DYS require children on probation to serve any suspensions from school incarcerated in the juvenile detention center.”
“The systematic disregard for children’s basic constitutional rights by agencies with a duty to protect and serve these children betrays the public trust,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if necessary.”
About 62 percent of Meridian’s population is African American, and the Justice Department alleges that mostly African American children and children with disabilities are impacted by the unconstitutional policies.
The Justice Department alleged in its findings letter that two Youth Court Judges have consistently denied civil rights investigators access to information about the policies and practices of the Youth Court.
The Civil Rights Division is seeking to negotiate with Meridian officials on the findings and if an agreement is not reached, the Justice Department can sue them.
The Meridian Police Department declined to comment when contacted by ABC News. ABC News is also awaiting comment from the Mississippi Division of Youth Services, the county court and an attorney representing the city of Meridian.