View Full Version : Article: With new legislation, Miss. to see changes in juvenile justice system

03-19-2005, 06:56 AM
March 17, 2005

With new legislation, Miss. to see visible changes in juvenile justice system

By Eric Stringfellow

Change appears to be finally coming to juvenile justice in Mississippi. The Juvenile Justice Act of 2005 should signal a shift in the state's approach toward juvenile offenders from incarceration to rehabilitation, treatment and community-based facilities.

The legislation is not as sweeping as proposed but is progressive enough that reform advocates are encouraged.

The bill requires counties to establish alternatives to incarceration and bans incarceration of first-time, nonviolent offenders. It also creates local care systems for nonviolent youths with behavioral or emotional disorders and requires detention centers to offer appropriate mental health services.

"This is the first time in the 18 years or so that I have served that we've recognized that incarceration is not the answer," said Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, Juvenile Justice Committee chairman.

Some advocates want more.

Flaggs sought to create a department of juvenile justice and give oversight to a nine-person board. That was unsuccessful, meaning the state Department of Human Services will continue its juvenile oversight.

Schools stay open

Remaining operational are the state's training schools Oakley and Columbia. Conditions and alleged abuse at the schools are the basis of a federal lawsuit.

The training schools should be closed, not just because of high recidivism but also because they are a huge drain on taxpayers. Adolescent offender programs, which are community based, are better investments.

The legislation charges the state Department of Public Safety with quarterly inspections of training schools.

It also requires judges to certify that each disposition is in the least restrictive environment, is close to the juvenile's community, and the facility offers medical, educational, vocational and rehabilitative services.

The lawsuit is expected to go to trial late this year. "I wouldn't be surprised if they settled the lawsuit," Flaggs said.

On to Barbour

Eric Holland, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, would not comment about the possible impact the reforms might have on the litigation.

The legislation has passed both chambers and will be sent to Gov. Haley Barbour after the Senate concurs with amendments made in the House, said Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford.

The reforms address what Flaggs called his two primary issues: treatment for children diagnosed with a mental illness and establishing clear guidelines for placing children in training centers.

The community-based programs, restrictions on incarceration and the emphasis on rehabilitation all are concepts lauded by the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition.

This group is pushing for more reforms and is concerned about how the Juvenile Justice Reform Act will be funded.

Too much, it believes, remains invested in training schools.

"This is a significant step forward," said Sheila Bedi of the Mississippi Center for Justice who is a Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition member. "But for real reform, we have to do even more to de-emphasize incarceration."

That's true, but at least the shift appears to have started.