On a drizzling Martin Luther King Day morning, students, parents and advocates marched onto the Capitol's south steps to call for educational reform and protest the incarceration of more than 1,000 Mississippi children.
The rally, organized by the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, featured speeches from both students and state legislators, a collective reading of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and a rally cry that modified Lil' John and the East Side Boyz' "Get Low" to say, "We're all free-free-free-free-free."
Among a sea of self-made posters, several reading "Books, Not Bars," a young girl in pink held up a laminated portrait of Dr. King, the kind one might find on a classroom wall. In black ink that streaked like tears down an orange poster board, another girl's sign read, "The cry of our children must be heard."
"You are not forgotten," said Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds, speaking through a megaphone about the plight of troubled children who had been taken from school and placed into jails.
Hohrn, along with Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, has sponsored HB 727, which would make several reforms to youth justice in Mississippi. One would require police to call parents so they have the opportunity to be present when juveniles are interrogated. Another reform would re-establish parole for juvenile offenders, so that the system might consider juveniles' rehabilitation. Perhaps the most important reform in the bill would raise the minimum age at which juveniles could be tried as adults from 13 years old to 15.
During the rally, Horhn said that incarcerated children who share cells with hardened adult criminals are five times more likely to become victims of sexual assault while in prison.
Ellen Reddy, president of the coalition, said that she finds the current law unbearable. She grabbed two 13-year-olds and asked her audience of around 200 to picture the children in an adult penitentiary. "At this age, can you imagine a mother and a father having to give up a child and not know what's going to happen?" Reddy asked.
For purposes of comparison, she then took a 15-year-old girl in a red, white, and blue track jacket and said that even though 15 was still too young for a juvenile to be tried as an adult, it was the minimum age that even approached decency.
"No, they ain't gonna take her!" the 15-year-old's mother shouted.
Bessie Thomas, mother of an imprisoned child, said that children's brains do not function in the same way as adults', which is why children cannot marry or drink alcohol, and thus should not face equal treatment in court. She thanked legislators who support the new bill for recognizing this "simple fact."
"Children are always children, and even when they break the law, they're still our children," added Lynn Ross, father of an imprisoned child.
"We know very little about their lives behind bars," Thomas said. "All we ask is for a chance to be involved in our children's rehabilitation."
She emphasized the reform that would require that parents be informed before their children are interrogated, and she stressed the importance of restoring parole for juveniles.
The coalition is also supporting several other bills this session, including HB 728, which was sponsored by Flaggs and Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, and would set aside $5 million for community-based alternatives to sending juveniles to Mississippi's training schools. Diverting 1,500 children from the training schools would save the state $25 million, according to coalition figures.
"We're currently spending $600 per child at (the Columbia Training School for girls)," said Sheila Bedi, co-director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project. "It's horrific. We're spending all of this money and getting so little in return."
The training schools, which include the facility at Columbia and another for boys at Oakley, have long been criticized for both inefficiency and abuse. Under a consent decree that settled federal lawsuits against the schools, the state was supposed to implement wide-reaching reforms. The court monitor who observes the schools' compliance has written that the state has failed to implement the reforms required by the consent decree and that it actually lost ground in several areas over the last quarter.
Another bill, HB 835, sponsored by Cecil Brown, D-Hinds, would require the state to incorporate evidence-based disciplinary strategies into school-board policies. Another, HB 983, sponsored by Bryant Clark, D-Dickens, and Sen. Kelvin Butler, D-Magnolia, would repeal the School Safety Act, which requires expulsion of any student who commits two or more disruptive acts. Bedi said that law is poorly written and encourages arbitrary expulsion of students. "It's an amorphous concept that is redundant in the law, because teachers can already kick out students who are violent or seriously disruptive. It's arbitrary and unnecessary," she said.
Flaggs, who is chairman of the Juvenile Justice Committee, told students that any of them could become a legislator, a doctor or a lawyer. "But we have to have a system that's fair," he said.
To the crowd of young protesters, who rallied with both laughter and conviction—they were, after all, children—he said: "I see the future of Mississippi on these steps."
Bedi said that the state has made considerable progress in how it treats juveniles, though more work remains to be done. "One of the things that makes me hopeful is that these legislators have stepped forward to address these issues. They're fighting for children that many people would like to forget behind bars," she said.
I'm sorry I wasn't able to make this rally; it sounds amazing!
- Tom Head