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New Law a First Step in Reforming Juvenile Justice

The governor of Mississippi on Friday signed a law seen as a milestone in efforts to change the way the state treats juvenile offenders.

JACKSON, Miss. | A new law signed Friday by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is a significant milestone in the Center's efforts to overhaul the state's deeply troubled juvenile justice system.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2005 emphasizes community-based rehabilitation and reduces punishment for first-time, non-violent offenders.

"This bill represents a fundamental shift in the way Mississippi deals with juvenile offenders," Center staff attorney Sheila Bedi told The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. "It will provide accountability in detention centers and the training schools, and we won't have what we had in 2002, which was tax-supported child abuse."

A 2003 U.S. Dept. of Justice investigation (PDF) of the state's two juvenile detention centers, Oakley and Columbia, substantiated claims that youth were punched, hogtied, left alone for days in bare rooms and disciplined with pepper spray.

Fewer than half of the state's 82 counties have county-operated youth detention centers, and the two training schools have been routinely used for status offenders — those guilty of truancy and other offenses that would not be crimes if they were committed by adults. The new law, effective July 1, stops their incarceration.

"These are children who need mental health services, education services and delinquency prevention programs," said Bedi.

Bedi, based in Jackson, works on juvenile justice issues with the Mississippi Coalition to Prevent Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, a group of about 40 community organizations, and the Mississippi Center for Justice. Their strategy to combine litigation with legislative advocacy is reaping results, and the new law is one of the most significant. The Coalition partnered with the Center to create a booklet used in the legislative campaign, the Mississippi Juvenile Justice Reform Briefing Book (PDF).

Another important victory came in January when the state settled a Center lawsuit, allowing lawyers seeking to improve juvenile justice to visit with children to discuss their treatment in Columbia Training School. Previously, only attorneys approved by local juvenile courts were allowed on the training school grounds.

"The settlement is an important victory for Mississippi children locked up in these facilities," said Center attorney Danielle Lipow. "But the settlement does not address the rampant abuse, poor medical care and lack of educational services in the training schools. Until those problems are resolved, we will continue to fight for Mississippi's children in the courtroom and in the legislature."

The presence of advocates like Bedi, the first Center attorney ever stationed full-time in another state, has had a powerful impact. Since the Center got involved in Mississippi, juvenile incarceration has dropped from more than 500 youth in 2002 to about 300 youth today.