WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department sued Mississippi state and local officials on Wednesday over what it called a "school-to-prison pipeline" that violates the rights of children, especially black and disabled youths.
The suit alleges that police officers in Meridian, Mississippi, routinely arrested students who were suspended from school, even when they had no probable cause to believe the students had committed a crime.
"We found that children have been incarcerated for being suspended from school for things like dress code violations or talking back to teachers," said Roy Austin, a senior civil rights official in the Justice Department.
The police department acted as little more than a "taxi service" between schools and a juvenile detention center 80 miles away, where students did not have access to lawyers or counselors, the suit says.
Lawyers for the city and surrounding Lauderdale County denied the allegations when the Justice Department publicly raised them in August and warned of a possible suit.
"You should provide detailed facts and any records or documents you have to support allegations" of violations of rights, the lawyers wrote in an August 23 letter, according to the Meridian Star newspaper.
Messages left on Wednesday with the lawyers, other local officials and Mississippi's governor and attorney general were not returned. The suit also named state agencies.
The government brought the suit under a 1994 federal law that bans a pattern or practice that deprives people of their rights.
It was the first time the Justice Department had used the law to sue on behalf of juveniles, Austin told reporters in a briefing. The department began an investigation in December after hearing local complaints, he said.
The department raised similar concerns in at least one other public case. In April it publicly accused the juvenile justice system in Shelby County, Tennessee, of violating the due process rights of black children, but it said local officials cooperated to improve the system.
Mississippi officials did not react the same way, and the Justice Department had no choice but to sue, Austin said. A recent policy change by the Meridian police still did not require probable cause before an arrest, the suit says.
"What we are trying to do is fix the problem and not fix the blame," Austin said.
Meridian, a city of 41,000, is situated 90 miles east of Jackson, the state capital, near Mississippi's border with Alabama.
About 6,100 students are enrolled in the public schools, and they are largely black and poor, the suit says.
The suit describes a system in which police arrested students for behavior that was not criminal - for example, flatulence in class while already on probation.
They could be locked up for days without a hearing or forced to admit to wrongdoing without being advised of their rights as required by the U.S. Supreme Court, the suit says.
The suit asks a federal court to find that the system violates the rights of youths, to order new policies and programs to replace the system, and to expunge records of youths who have been harmed by the system.
The faults of the system threaten to have a lasting impact on those who are arrested, the suit says.
"Even one court appearance during high school increases a child's likelihood of dropping out of school, and court appearances are especially detrimental to children with no or minimal previous history of delinquency," it says.
Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech