11/12/2004

Legal action protects children's rights

Nov. 12, 2004 -- Beginning with its first case in 1969 (see Smith v. YMCA), the Center's legal work has been especially concerned with protecting the rights of children.

Most recently, Center lawyers have focused on children in Southern states suffering under harsh juvenile justice systems and inadequate education policies. Consistently ranked lowest in overall child well-being, these states are in desperate need of reform.

Center lawyers have filed numerous lawsuits to protect the children in juvenile prisons. They are also working hard to keep others from getting pulled into what is known in Mississippi as the "Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline."

Eighty percent of children in Mississippi's juvenile prisons have a mental or emotional disability. Because of the state's inadequate special education services — and a zero tolerance attitude toward these children — many are locked up for nonviolent offenses that are a direct result of behavior caused by their illness.

"These children are in juvenile prison when they shouldn't be there," said Rhonda Brownstein, the Center's legal director. "We're trying to stop children from ending up in prisons and jails when all they need is a chance to overcome their problems. We want to make sure they're given that chance."

Center lawyers are working to convince Mississippi's legislature to pass laws that will provide juvenile courts with alternatives to incarceration. These include mental health treatment, group therapy sessions, after-school programs, anger management courses, or home confinement.

"Right now the easiest thing to do is send these kids to prison," Brownstein said. "If we can offer the courts alternatives, children will get the treatment they need and avoid going to jail."

Center lawyers are also monitoring a lawsuit that was brought to force Mississippi schools to comply with the federal mandate to provide special education services. Under the watchful eye of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Disability Law Center, the state will train teachers on the latest research and practices dealing with special education, hire enough staff and counselors to accommodate their students, and educate parents on how to help their children succeed.

With the help of dedicated supporters, Center lawyers will continue their fight to put an end to the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline.