Rally for Juvenile Justice Reform Kicks Off Center's Lobbying Work
About 200 students, parents and advocates rallied in drizzling rain at Mississippi's state Capitol yesterday to support further reforms of the state's juvenile justice system. The rally, held on Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday in honor of his dream for a just society, featured speeches from students and state legislators and included a collective reading of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech.
Organized by the Center's Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP) and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, the rally in Jackson coincided with the opening of a new legislative session, which began Jan. 2. The rally framed MYJP's legislative agenda and energized its ongoing efforts to reform juvenile justice in Mississippi.
"Despite two years of substantial reforms, too many of Mississippi's children languish in prisons and jails," said Sheila Bedi, a Center attorney and MYJP co-director. "Many of our young people are pushed out of school by overly harsh discipline policies. The rally supported four critical reforms that will improve the systems created to support Mississippi's families."
Building on legislative successes in the past two years, MYJP staffers are working this year to pass key pieces of legislation:
- $5 million for community-based alternatives to incarceration, saving the state millions.
- The Juvenile Transfer Act of 2007, a bill ensuring that state resources are not wasted on incarcerating children with adult offenders. It would give children a second chance at life, only after they've been successfully rehabilitated.
- Simple changes to the state's youth court statute and creation of a Youth Court Defense Standards Council to improve the administration of justice in youth courts, enabling court-involved children to better navigate the complicated court process.
- Establishment of evidence-based school discipline policies.
"National research shows that the best school discipline policies are grounded in research and developed to achieve positive outcomes for both teachers and students," Bedi said. "School districts should be required to incorporate such tactics into discipline policies."
The Center began its push to reform Mississippi's long-troubled juvenile justice system in 2003. That same year, a report from the U.S. Department of Justice documented shockingly inhumane conditions at Columbia and Oakley training schools, the state's juvenile prisons.
In early 2005, the Center initiated the MYJP. Co-directed by Bedi and grassroots organizer Ellen Reddy, the project worked to pass the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 2005 and the Mississippi Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act in 2006.
Last year's legislation is considered one of the most progressive juvenile justice laws ever enacted in the United States and is often cited as a model for the rest of the country.
"The state has made considerable progress in how it treats juveniles, though more work needs to be done," Bedi said. "One of the things that makes me hopeful is that legislators have stepped forward to address these issues. They're fighting for children that many people would like to forget behind bars."
Speaking at the rally were Rep. George Flaggs Jr., chairman of the House Juvenile Justice committee and sponsor of last year's model legislation, and Sen. John Horhn.
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. Since the Center began its reform efforts, juvenile incarceration in training schools has dropped from more than 500 to about 150 today.