By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - The family court system in St. Louis, Missouri, has racially discriminated against black juveniles, denying children their constitutional rights as they navigate court proceedings, a nearly two-year-long federal investigation has found.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report Friday, saying the Family Court of St. Louis County discriminates routinely against black children in a variety of ways.
The court has failed to ensure the youth have adequate legal representation, failed to make sure there is probable cause that the children committed offenses they were accused of, and failed to ensure that guilty pleas by black children are entered voluntarily, the Justice Department said.
"The findings we issue today are serious and compelling," Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
Since opening the investigation in November 2013, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has analyzed data relating to nearly 33,000 juvenile cases, including all delinquency and status offenses resolved in St. Louis County Family Court between 2010 and 2013, the Justice Department said.
Investigators reviewed more than 14,000 pages of documents, including family court records, transcripts, policies, procedures and external reports, the Justice Department said.
The report comes after a similarly harsh critique by the Justice Department of the municipal court system and policing practices in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.
That report, issued earlier this year, found evidence that the mostly white Ferguson police force and the municipal court exploited minorities to raise revenue through traffic fines and fees. As well, the Justice Department said officers had a pattern of using excessive force and making illegal arrests, as well as deploying attack dogs and using Tasers on unarmed black people.
Ferguson and the St. Louis area has become a touchstone for civil rights activists protesting police and court treatment of minorities after an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed in August 2014 by a white Ferguson police officer.
The officer was not charged in the killing, and sometimes violent protests and clashes with police rocked the region for months.
More protests are planned next week in the St. Louis area, around the Aug. 9 one-year anniversary of Brown's death.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and Bernadette Baum)