03/29/2006

New Bill Funds Juvenile Justice Reforms

The Mississippi legislature yesterday passed a bill to fund community-based services for juvenile offenders and reform the state's juvenile justice system.

The Mississippi Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act is another major success in the Southern Poverty Law Center's ongoing campaign to overhaul Mississippi's brutal juvenile justice system.

"This new legislation establishes a framework for a model juvenile justice system. It makes critical improvements to every stage of the process," said Sheila Bedi, an SPLC attorney and co-director of the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP). "Troubled children now can get the help they need to be successful in life."

The presence of advocates like Bedi and MYJP co-founder Ellen Reddy has a powerful impact in the state. Since SPLC began its reform efforts, juvenile incarceration in Mississippi has dropped from more than 500 youth in 2002 to about 200 youth today.

Bedi and Reddy coordinate their efforts with the Mississippi Coalition to Prevent Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, a group of about 40 community organizations. Their strategy to combine litigation with legislative advocacy is reaping results.

SPLC began its push to reform Mississippi's long-troubled juvenile justice system in 2003. That same year, a report (PDF) from the U. S. Department of Justice documented shockingly inhumane conditions at Mississippi's Columbia and Oakley training schools, the state's juvenile prisons.

The 2006 legislation augments the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005, which emphasized community-based rehabilitation and reduced punishment for first-time, non-violent offenders, but did not provide funding for programs.

The new bill mandates:

  • significant funding for community-based incarceration alternatives, reducing training school and detention placement;
  • training requirements for court-appointed juvenile public defenders;
  • comprehensive standards for juvenile detention centers and community-based alternatives to incarceration;
  • prohibition of the detention of juveniles guilty of offences not considered crimes if committed by adults; and
  • transitional planning for youth leaving training schools and detention centers.

"This is the most progressive juvenile justice legislation ever to be passed in the United States," said Rep. George Flaggs Jr., who sponsored the bill.

Governor Haley Barbour is expected to sign the bill into law.

UPDATE 4/17/06
Gov. Haley Barbour signed the Mississippi Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act into law Friday, April 17.