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By Pete Williams

A Justice Department investigation has concluded that the St. Louis County Family Court discriminates against black children and falls short in providing required legal protections to children in general.

The court "fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children appearing for delinquency proceedings," the department's Civil Rights Division said in a report after analyzing nearly 33,000 juvenile cases in the court between 2010 and 2013.

The report said the court failed to ensure that young defendants have adequate legal representation, failed to make required findings of probable cause that a child committed the charged offense, and failed to ensure that a child's guilty plea was voluntarily.

Black children were treated less favorably at moments of key decisions within the juvenile justice system, the report said. It found that they are more likely to be formally charged instead of having their cases handled informally, detained before trial, and placed in a secure Division of Youth Services facility after conviction.

"In certain phases of the County's juvenile justice system, race is — in and of itself — a significant contributing factor," even after considering legal and social variables such as age and nature of the charges, the department said in a letter to county officials.

"The findings we issue today are serious and compelling," said Vanita Gupta of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

"Missouri was at the forefront of juvenile corrections reform when it closed its large juvenile institutions and moved to a smaller, treatment-focused system and we are hopeful that Missouri will rise to this challenge to, once again, be a leader in juvenile justice reform.”