Gray skies and a steady drizzle did nothing to dash the exuberance of 200 young people gathered on the steps of the state capitol on Monday, Jan. 16. Many of the youths wore bright orange shirts and held up colorful homemade signs. There was a steady cadence of clapping and dancing as children sang gospels and hip-hop, read poetry and rapped in support for reform of juvenile justice law.
"Martin Luther King Jr. would be so happy to see all you young people gathered together on the steps of the capitol," Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said in reference to Monday's holiday.
The rally, organized by the Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse, drew young people from as far afield as Lee, Washington and Jefferson Davis counties. Most of the youths were teenagers, but a few were so small they struggled with their signs in the inclement weather.
"Some of these kids may not be able to articulate everything in the act, but they have brothers and sisters who have been caught up in the juvenile justice system. They know what's at stake," said Ellen Reddy, who is co-director of programs and a community organizer for the Mississippi Youth Justice Program. The act is the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Act of 2006 proposed by Flaggs.
"Last year, we went from incarceration to community-based programs. This legislation is the prevention part that is supposed to keep children from getting into trouble in the first place, to provide them with community support so they have alternatives to crime," Flaggs said.
The centerpiece of the legislation is a proposal to transfer the females at Columbia Training School to the Oakley Training School, which was originally built to house both males and females. Columbia would then be converted into a treatment center.
"One thing that the youth court judges have said unanimously is that there is no substance abuse program for adolescents in Mississippi, so we think that's where we'd start from," said Sheila Bedi, co-director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.
Flaggs argues that maintaining Columbia as a training school makes little sense financially. "Columbia averages about 23 girls, but now they're down to 12. We appropriate about $6 million to run that school. If we recapture that money and put it into treatment, we can serve more children at less cost. It costs $124 a day to incarcerate a child but only $23 a day to offer them community-based programs," Flaggs said.
The savings from Columbia would be directed toward $5 million in grants for local communities to develop their own solutions to juvenile delinquency as alternatives to the training school. The Division of Youth Services estimates that for every 1,900 children diverted from the training schools, the state saves $15 million.
"The community-based model saves the state so much money because when you lock a child up, you have to pay for medical care, education, food, clothes," Bedi said.
"Columbia is not eligible for Medicaid reimbursement because it is a secure facility. So the entire burden of running that facility is on the state. If Columbia were made a treatment center, however, the services provided there would be Medicaid reimbursable. That alone saves a tremendous amount of money," Bedi continued.
The proposed legislation would also require new continuing education training for public defenders. Under current law, a public defender can represent a child without any knowledge of juvenile justice law at all, though such training is already required for judges and prosecutors.
The legislation would also set standards for detention. "Generally, detention centers are just for use before adjudication, but judges here in Mississippi will keep kids in detention for 90 days after their hearings as a form of punishment. If this legislation passes, that would no longer be allowed in 2007 unless the detention center provides education services and medical care," Bedi said.
Yet financial savings and standards for public defenders are not what drew so many youth to the capitol. The paramount issue for them was the incarceration of young people in training schools.
"I know a bunch of kids who have been sent to the training schools," 17-year-old Kahlin Johnson of S V Marshall High School in Holmes County said. "It doesn't take a whole lot to get sent away. A lot of the kids get sent off for non-violent acts, for picking up something that wasn't theirs or trivial things like truancy. You can go up to the youth court, and you'll see kids just walking around in the square because there's so many in the building. … If a kid gets sent off to the training school, the principal thinks it's not his problem anymore, whether the kid needs to go to the training school or not."
"Getting sent to the training school kills their pride," Johnson continued. "Kids keep getting sent off, and it shows them the community doesn't care anything about them. Instead of talking to these kids and helping them, we always just send them away. Then when they come back, they just keep on doing what got them into trouble in the first place. So they get sent off again. It never ends until finally the kid winds up in jail."
"We always talk about children being our greatest resource, and we need to start treating them that way," Reddy added. "The youth court law requires the rehabilitation and protection of children, so how does pulling them out of their communities and locking them up do that?"
The reform act is currently in the House Ways and Means Committee, where a vote is expected this week.
“One thing that the youth court judges have said unanimously is that there is no substance abuse program for adolescents in Mississippi, so we think that’s where we’d start from,” said Sheila Bedi, co-director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.
I had no idea! Brian, I hope you plan to do a follow-up report.
Donna, I'm surprised you haven't posted anything here yet. ;-)
Now, that's not necessarily true.
I like both Reddy and Bedi and have heard them speak extensively about their programs. I think they rock. I also truly believe in their mission to shut down the state's training schools and replace them with treatment facilities offering counseling and case management services.
That actually is what these kids need more than incarceration.
I only have two things to add to this story
1) I can't get a reoffending kid sent to training school without BEGGING. I know you guys HATE to hear this, but there are some kids that NEED to be at training school Expecially those with antisocial proclivities who show no signs of improving after years of "counseling and case management". I truly believe this. I also want you guys to know its not as easy to get sent to training school as some would like you to believe. You usually MUST be a reoffender and your crime can not just be a "status offense" such as runnining away or disturbing the family peace.
2) There ARE treatment centers for adolescents with substance abuse issues. What about The Ark, CART House, Sunflower Landing? These are Medicaid reimbursable as well. Now, granted, there are not enough. But they do exist.
I love Judge Patton. I think he's the best juvenile judge around. I just wanted to say that. This man dedicates his life to juvenile issues and TRULY believes in rehabilitation of juveniles.
In short, the detention center gets a bad rap.
- Lori G
I think they're saying that there's no state substance abuse centers. I assume all of the centers you mentioned are privately run, regardless of whether they get Medicaid reimbursement. Yes?
- Brian C Johnson
There is East MS State Hospital. A and D treatment for adolescent males is their focus. There is also Oak Circle. :P (Both of these are adolescent offshoots of MS State Hospital, or Whitfield)
I'm not saying there are enough, especially with adolescent offenders as their focus. But they DO exist.
- Lori G
There is also the Alcohol Services Center...this place treats girls AND their mothers who have alcohol problems. Their services are free.
Sorry, Brian. I'm the "Resource Queen" at work. Finding creative ways to get kids the treatment they need with little or no money is actually what I do. ;)
I just want people to know there are options.
- Lori G