By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Black youths arrested in Memphis, Tennessee, were much more likely than white juveniles to be jailed and tried as adults, discriminatory practices that also affect Hispanic youths in other cities, the Justice Department said on Thursday.
A review of 66,000 juvenile court cases in Memphis, where numerous abuses drew Justice Department investigators in 2009, revealed "serious and systemic failures" in the way youthful offenders were treated, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said.
"We found African-American children treated differently and more harshly," Perez said, summarizing the findings of the department's report in a conference call with reporters.
Black juveniles who were arrested in Memphis and surrounding Shelby County were twice as likely as whites to be detained in jail and twice as likely to be recommended for transfer to adult court, where a conviction generally brings harsher punishment, Perez said.
Juveniles prosecuted as adults are more prone to commit new crimes after release, he said.
In addition to racial and ethnic discrimination, the report said it found other problems in the Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system.
The Justice Department said it uncovered failures to protect juvenile suspects from self-incrimination, a pattern of youths arrested without a warrant not getting timely hearings, inadequate protections for detained juveniles who were in danger of harming themselves, and a tendency for jailers to overuse physical restraints on juveniles.
The problems experienced by juveniles in Memphis and Shelby County - which has a population of 928,000, more than half of them black - were singled out by the Justice Department but the area is not alone, Perez said.
Similar problems have arisen in the juvenile justice systems of other cities, especially those with large Hispanic populations, he said.
"The challenges confronting the system in Memphis exist in many communities across America," Perez said.
Perez was encouraged that the local judiciary in Memphis had already begun enacting reforms there. No federal sanctions had been put in place, but he said there still could be steps taken.
Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, who is heading up the reforms in Memphis, said in a statement in response to the report: "I deplore and will not tolerate discrimination of any kind at the Juvenile Court, whether it is based on race, gender, religion, age or any other factor."
Perez said he was "optimistic we can indeed transform Memphis into a model for the nation ... Our goal is not to fix blame but fix the problem."
"Time is of the essence," he said. "We can't afford to squander any moments here. Liberty is at stake."
(Editing By Andrew Stern and Eric Beech)