03/09/2005

Mississippi Takes Step to Overhaul Juvenile Justice System

JACKSON, Miss. -- The Mississippi House has given its approval to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005. It is the first step aimed at reforming the state's notorious juvenile justice system.

Monday's vote in the House was 119 to 3. The Senate unanimously passed its own version of the bill on February 2.

The bill is an enormous victory for a coalition of community groups who have been working with Center lawyers since the fall of 2003 to improve juvenile justice and derail Mississippi's "schoolhouse to jailhouse" train.

"This legislation shows that Mississippi lawmakers are questioning whether incarceration is the answer for delinquent children," said Sheila Bedi, a Center staff attorney who works here with the Mississippi Coalition to Prevent Schoolhouse to Jailhouse.

Mississippi's current juvenile justice system relies almost exclusively on incarcerating children in training schools — the most expensive, least effective means of combating juvenile delinquency. A survey of southeastern states showed that Mississippi now imprisons a much higher percentage of nonviolent status offenders — like truants — than any other in the region.

The new act will stop the incarceration of status offenders and first-time, non-violent adjudicated children. It also establishes community-based alternatives to incarceration in every county within the next four years, and it creates a new monitoring unit to conduct regular inspections of the detention centers and training schools.

The Center got involved in Mississippi when a 2003 report (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found shockingly inhumane conditions at Mississippi's two training schools, where inmates were not only hog-tied and shackled to poles, but also assaulted by staff members and sometimes sprayed with chemicals during mandatory exercises.

A high-level official at DOJ described the Mississippi facilities as "clearly the worst two we have seen in probably 20 years."

The Center, working with a broad coalition of community groups, is seeking to turn the system around through litigation and legislation. Staff attorney Bedi moved to Jackson in January 2004 to spearhead the Coalition's legislative campaign.