Federal report finds bias in St. Louis County family court

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The U.S. Department of Justice released a report critical of the St. Louis County Family Court on Friday, finding that black youths are treated more harshly than whites, and juveniles are often deprived of constitutional rights. Though unrelated to the department's investigation in Ferguson, the new report again raises concern about racial discrimination and profiling in the St. Louis region.

The investigation from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division was initiated in 2013 amid complaints that black youths were treated unfairly in the family court, which handles about 6,000 youth cases each year. Treatment of African-Americans in the region drew increased scrutiny last year after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer in Ferguson. The 60-page report arrived just over a week before the anniversary of Brown's death, Aug. 9.

"In short, black children are subjected to harsher treatment because of their race," Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote in a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and Family Court Administrative Judge Thea Sherry. She called the findings "serious and compelling."

Nixon called the report "deeply concerning." Though in St. Louis County, the court is supervised by the Missouri Supreme Court. "All Missourians have a right to a fair and equitable justice system, and our young people are no exception," Nixon said in a statement.

Stenger said he will urge the court "to work with the state of Missouri to fix the glaring problems identified by the Department of Justice."

The report said the Justice Department will seek to resolve complaints through negotiations, though litigation remains possible. Gupta said at a news conference that an initial meeting with family court officials was "cordial and cooperative."

The department is taking a similar tack as after a report released in March alleging racial bias and profiling by police and the municipal court in Ferguson. That report was begun following Brown's death, and negotiations between the DOJ and Ferguson officials are still going on.

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