JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Juan Cloy remembers being suspended when he was at Provine High School in the 1980s. He and several friends got in a fight with some kids from the neighborhood at school. Everyone involved got suspended.
Of course, the idea of suspension is for kids to stay home, but none of the boys did. He and his friends went outside and walked around the corner to find the boys they got into a fight with in a car.
“One of the kids pulled a gun out on us,” he said. “… [T]here was no resolution. We never resolved that — ever. To this day it hasn’t been resolved, and this was in high school.”
Cloy, who worked as a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years at the Jackson and Canton police departments and the FBI, now is the Mississippi director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a subsidiary of the Council for a Strong America. The organization signed a memorandum of understanding with Jackson Public Schools to work on discipline and the relationship between school resource officers and JPD.
Specifically, Cloy is working to help implement PBIS — positive behavioral intervention and supports — and restorative justice programs — like justice circles, which invite everyone to share their experiences and discuss situations openly instead of being suspended — throughout JPS.
Drawing on his suspension experience in high school, Cloy says the school’s discipline procedures and culture should help resolve conflicts — not just remove kids from school.
“People say they bring that stuff from the neighborhood to the school, and that’s true,” Cloy says. “But while they’re in our care in the schools, we should have some sort of system set up to help kind of diffuse that and figure out what’s going on.”
A culture problem
As a part of his work with Fight Crime, Cloy is focused on working with JPD to help the school district suspend and expel students less.
“Statistics show that a kid who is out of school for suspension or expulsion is more likely to end up in the back of a police car,” Cloy told the Jackson Free Press in an interview.
A new report from Fight Crime published this month shows that Mississippi has higher in-school and out-of-school suspension rates than the national average. Cloy focuses on Jackson Public Schools and the Biloxi School District in his work for Fight Crime.
JPS has a higher rate of out-of-school suspension than in-school suspension, indicating that administrators are using the latter less overall, opting to just send kids home instead.
Jackson, the second-largest district in the state, did not have the worst rate of suspension by a long shot, however. Philadelphia, Mississippi, schools have the highest out-of-school suspension rate in the state, the Fight Crime report shows.
JPS administrators have worked to use suspension data to change the district’s discipline policies and implement behavioral management systems like PBIS, which rewards students for positive behavior. The district also uses Tools for Life, which teaches younger students their “tools” for negotiating and interacting with others.
JPS Interim Superintendent Freddrick Murray says PBIS and Tools for Life are what helped drop the district’s number of discipline cases so far this year. At the end of October in the 2016-17 school year, 177 students were referred to the alternative school for discipline issues. This year, that number was 145.
Murray explained the discipline data to the new Better Together Commission, tasked with conducting a districtwide study and soliciting community input as a part of the third “takeover” option for JPS.
“Good leaders run good buildings, and so we have to make sure our principals are quality leaders and that they understand that they are responsible for the cultural climate of their building, and again, that doesn’t mean suspending every child, that means being able to adopt a culture,” Murray told the commission on Nov. 8.
Cloy agrees. He says he has seen a culture of suspension in his work with JPS so far. Last school year, students in JPS were suspended in some high schools for being out of class or dress code violations, while other students in different high schools receive in-school detention for similar infractions. More than 8,000 out-of-school suspensions were recorded in the 2016-17 school year in JPS. The district implemented a new code of conduct, with new discipline procedures this school year, in part due to that data.
“I just think suspension is a culture: You go home,” he told the Jackson Free Press. “And it’s a culture districtwide, so culture, as they say, is one of the hardest things to change.”
All about leadership
That doesn’t mean progress has not occurred in the district, however. Murray mentioned a JPS school he used to go into four years ago where discipline was an issue, but told the commission that it is very different today — and discipline is not an issue anymore. He said responsibility for the discipline goes to the school leader, the assistant superintendents and ultimately to him as the superintendent.
In the midst of a potential state takeover, Murray reorganized the district into four feeder patterns based on data, including on discipline. The district now has four area superintendents, and as a part of the reorganization, Murray removed and then hired 14 new principals for the current school year.
In Fight Crime’s work inside JPS schools, Cloy says Wingfield High School in Jackson is an example of a school that has implemented alternative and creative programming, from an arts program to jiu-jitsu to chess for students that help combat disciplinary issues. Other schools, he said, are going day-to-day.
Cloy said he can tell when a behavioral system in a school is working.
“You can tell when a program is run, whatever the program is,” he said. “When the bell rings, and the students walk out of the classroom, you can tell who runs the building. You can tell what program is working and if there’s a program that’s being used.”
With autonomy, Cloy says, principals can work to adapt different behavioral interventions from PBIS to restorative justice practices (both proven to reduce suspension rates) effectively.
“Each school has to be treated differently, and certain principals have to be put in place and given full autonomy to run their schools and use their programs,” he said. “And if it doesn’t work, then you get a new principal.”
State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read more about Jackson Public Schools at jfp.ms/jpstakeover and juvenile justice and alternative solutions at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.
Malia* and her friend were driving in Pearl, Mississippi, one day in August last year, out looking for jobs. Malia, who is in her 20s, was in the passenger seat, and her 4-month-old baby rode in a car seat in the back. Suddenly, a Pearl police officer pulled the vehicle over for a traffic violation involving using a phone while driving. The officer ran Malia and her friend’s names and found they both had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses, meaning that Malia had not paid Pearl Municipal Court fines she owed.
The officer arrested both women and called the Mississippi Department of Human Services to report that the baby was “abandoned” after her mother’s arrest. Even though the baby’s grandmother, Malia’s mother, showed up to take the baby, the officer took the child before Judge John Shirley, who presided over Pearl Municipal Youth Court.
Youth court judges in Mississippi preside over all matters involving delinquent juveniles in addition to abused, neglected or abandoned children. Youth court judges have the power to send children to foster care, grant custody to different guardians or give a child to adoptive parents.
Judge John Shirley gave custody of the baby to the grandmother immediately. Shirley, who also presided over Pearl Municipal Court, demanded $500 from Malia of her outstanding court fees, which totaled more than $1,000. Neither Malia nor her mother could afford that, so Malia spent seven nights in jail, MacArthur Justice Center attorney Cliff Johnson said. He also said the Pearl Municipal Court could not produce files on Malia’s earlier misdemeanors. After a week, Malia’s mother got $300 together to help get her out of jail. It was around this time that Shirley issued an order preventing Malia from seeing her child.
Youth court judges conduct hearings within 14 days after the initial hearing and consider several factors, including the child’s physical and mental conditions and the parent’s ability to provide supervision. Following the hearing, Malia believed that she could not see her child because the judge had granted her mother custody of the baby, Johnson said. Malia still owed fees in Shirley’s municipal court, and she did not return to youth court to attempt to get custody of her child back. Mississippi law did not mandate that Malia be provided an attorney to represent her.
The above account is based on a press release attorney Johnson prepared and subsequent interviews with him. Youth court documents detailing the situation are bound by strict state confidentiality rules and not public record.
More than a year later, Malia heard about the MacArthur Justice Center and called Johnson in October. He investigated her case and alerted the Pearl Board of Aldermen and Mayor Jake Windham about Malia’s case. Shirley reversed his order on Oct. 24, despite Malia still not paying her court fines. The mother could finally see her now 18-month-old baby after more than a year of court-ordered separation.
Late on Oct. 25, the Pearl Board of Aldermen and the mayor met for an emergency meeting. The aldermen decided to shut down the youth court, and Shirley resigned his post as both the Pearl Municipal Youth Court and Justice Court judge.
Shirley, who also serves as a justice court judge in Rankin County, claims some information Johnson wrote in his press release is untrue.
The judge responds
Shirley claims the mother did not come back to youth court and that he did not know she was indigent. After news of his resignation broke, he sent a statement to TV station WLBT placing the responsibility on the teenage mother.
“The child’s mother complained in a press release that her contact with a child was prohibited because she was indigent, but she refused to appear in court at the next hearing and never informed me about financial issues,” Shirley said in the statement published by WLBT. “I have always been very understanding about financial issues if I have been informed by someone in court, but a judge can’t properly assess a financial situation unless informed. The remedy was for the mother to appear in court and she did NOT.”
Shirley wrote that youth court judges are authorized to order “no contact” between a child and the child’s parent “if the judge is concerned that the child would not be safe because the parent is refusing to take corrective action to prevent future abuse or neglect. One indicator of a parent refusing to take corrective action is when the parent refuses to come to court.”
Johnson says that if Shirley believed Malia to be a neglectful and abusive mother, he gave no reason why she should suddenly get custody of her baby back days before the city shuttered its youth court. Johnson said his client has two more children who continued to live with her this past year. He could not see the youth court documents either because the court did not appoint him to represent Malia, he said.
Malia did not return to youth court after the hearing last August, but Johnson says his client’s story of being locked up for unpaid fees and then being fearful to return to court is common. The MacArthur Justice Center has spearheaded litigation, most recently in Scott County, Mississippi, to change the judicial practice of locking people up for their inability to pay fines. Johnson said if a person is intimidated or frightened to go back to court, they usually will not.
“The reason they don’t show back up is because they are afraid of those judges. They are afraid if they go back to court, they’re going to get put in jail, so they just hope against hope that they’re not going to get picked up,” Johnson said.
Shirley’s press release, titled “Political Games by Mayor and County Youth Court Judge,” alleges that the “situation” arose due to a coordinated effort between Windham and Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome.
“I resigned because I am tired of the politics of Mayor Jake Windham and Rankin County Youth Court Judge Tom Broome,” Shirley’s statement says.
Broome told the Jackson Free Press he did not want to dignify the statement with a comment, saying “I will let my record and that of our court speak for itself.” He is a board member of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Windham said he and the board acted on objective facts presented to them. “This had no political gerrymandering going on,” he said. He felt he had made the correct decision for the city and was taken aback by Shirley’s statement, he said.
Shirley defends his time on the bench in Pearl, saying his coordination with law enforcement officers and his persistent pushing on Child Protective Services workers resulted in “many criminal child predators [that have] been prosecuted and convicted.”
Johnson calls the act of linking child contact to inability to pay court fees “judicial kidnapping.” He said he got “dozens and dozens” of calls after releasing his statement on Oct. 26, which indicated to him that not being able to see children due to outstanding fees was common in Pearl.
Shirley did not respond to repeated requests for comment through Pearl public information officers, Facebook messages, emails and messages left at Pearl Municipal Court and Rankin County Justice Court.
Youth court proceedings are entirely closed off to the public, and all records are confidential in Mississippi. Youth court judges are in charge of determining if a parent has neglected or abused a child or children. These judges determine whether removing a child from the home is necessary and if so, whether to place them in foster care or in the custody of another parent or guardian. While youth court judges are supposed to follow uniform rules of procedure, their actions tend to be inconsistent from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Carlyn Hicks, director of the Mission First Legal Aid office, said Mississippi is in need of a uniform county youth court system. Parents around the state, she said, need to expect the same level of engagement from the Division of Child Protection Services, youth courts and law enforcement.
“Until we see that in a unified front, we are going to continue to have problems; we are still going to have issues,” Hicks said. “… [T]he most important thing would be the uniformity in how the youth court operates.”
Court-appointed attorneys for parents in youth court would help address accountability and transparency challenges, Hicks added.
Judge Tom Broome, the youth court judge of Rankin County Youth Court, now has jurisdiction over all of Shirley’s cases. He said his staff is working as quickly as possible to take inventory of all the Pearl Youth Court cases, prioritizing out-of-home placement cases.
“We always try to make sure that the children are in a safe spot, but also recognize the importance of children growing up in their own home with their parents, and parents being able to raise their own children,” he said.
*Name created because Johnson would not provide Malia’s real name.
State reporter Arielle Dreher is a reporter for the Jackson Free Press, where this story also appears. Read Youth Court-related stories at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.
This story has been updated.
“This lack of sufficient staff has caused the facility to practice imminent and deliberate harm to youth … the facility is forced to place the kids on lockdown most of the day; not because they want to, but because it’s the only way to maintain any type of control,” reads a court-appointed inspector’s report on the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in Hinds County, Mississippi. “This lack of appropriate staffing dictates the level of violence that is experienced in the facility.”
The lockup for up to 84 youth is unclean and “has a dungeon-like feeling.” Two juveniles admitted to the facility were allowed no phone call or shower. While there’s some limited recreational programming for boys, there’s none apparent for girls.
That July 2012 report is a recent, but not unique, verdict on some of Mississippi’s juvenile detention centers.
“That’s the reason we want to put this system in place, so that we can come up with a good system that will prevent some of these things from happening,” said state Sen. Willie Simmons (D-Cleveland), author of the 2012 bill that created the Mississippi Juvenile Detention and Alternatives Task Force.
Its 17 members are to support expansion of juvenile detention alternatives, according to the language of Senate Bill 2598. They have until Nov. 1, 2013 to make recommendations.
Mississippi handles juvenile detention locally, with 16 county-run detention centers. Counties that don’t have a center must bus youth to counties that do, sometimes more than 100 miles from home.
The task force’s first job is to recommend ways to prevent unnecessary detention of juveniles, according to chair and Adams County Court Judge John Hudson. They also plan to recommend licensing rules for juvenile detention centers, and recommend better standards of operation.
His county is one of five in Mississippi that has already been at work on changes, with assistance via the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. JDAI aims to help system-involved youth develop into healthy, productive adults by promoting juvenile justice policy reforms.
“I think JDAI kind of gave our state-level partners a feel of how they could broadly experience juvenile justice reform in their state,” said Gail Mumford, senior associate with AECF’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.
The number of juveniles detained in four pilot JDAI counties declined between 4 and 12 percent in 2011, according to the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts. Among other things, counties used a points system to decide which juveniles should be detained and which could safely be sent back to community supervision.
Mississippi has seen, said Mumford, the way that JDAI can reduce inappropriate and unnecessary use of detention, and help improve conditions for the kids who are securely confined.
“Who wouldn’t want to do that, right?” she said.
JDAI numbers are part of the data the task force has as it starts work. Its recommendations must be ready in time for consideration during Mississippi’s 2014 legislative session.
That’s a shift from the original version of the bill, which would have given the task force the power to write licensing standards and would have required detention centers to get licenses by 2016.
If the Mississippi legislature adopts the task force recommendations, they will build on a 2005 law that first set uniform minimum standards for juvenile detention centers. The law requires juvenile detention centers to conduct mental and physical health screenings, provide recreation, counseling, education and things to read, along with private communication with family, among other things.
In five years’ time, “I think it will be better, I think we will see improvements,” said Simmons. “I think there’s a commitment to look at what is going on with our juveniles and try and take care of it.”
The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing the Mississippi county, city and judges who they say systematically ignore youthful defendants’ rights, resulting in a well-beaten path from school to incarceration.
“The department is bringing this lawsuit to ensure that all children are treated fairly and receive the fullest protection of the law,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the DOJ Civil Rights Division, in a written statement on Oct. 24.
The suit is being brought against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, the two judges of the county Youth Court and the state of Mississippi.“It is in all of our best interests to ensure that children are not incarcerated for alleged minor infractions, and that police and courts meet their obligations to uphold children’s constitutional rights,” he wrote.
The DOJ published preliminary accusations against the now-defendants some 10 weeks ago, threatening a lawsuit if the Mississippians did not cooperate.
Meridian and Lauderdale’s attorneys countered that the DOJ investigation was cursory, and that the DOJ had asked for confidential records that the Mississippi judges could not legally provide.
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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
“It is disappointing that the local and state government agencies involved in the administration of juvenile justice in Lauderdale County have not worked cooperatively with the Justice Department to resolve these violations,” said Gregory Davis, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, in the same Oct. 24 written statement.
The department is holding a conference call about the suit on Oct. 25 to give more details about the investigation and complaint.
A similar set of complaints has been brought by the DOJ against the youth court in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. In that case, the courts have agreed to make changes and are negotiating with the federal government on better practices, thereby evading a lawsuit.
This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity
Meridian is not alone under the DOJ magnifying glass. In a somewhat similar case in Tennessee, the DOJ says the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County has failed to inform children of the charges against them and of failing to make sure the children know what their legal rights are ahead of questioning. Like Meridian, the juvenile court is also accused of failing to hold timely hearings.
There are varying definitions of a school-to-prison pipeline, said Jim Freeman, senior attorney at Advancement Project, a nonprofit legal action group that fights racial injustice.
“How I like to define it,” Freeman said, “is the use of policies and practices that increase the likelihood that young people become incarcerated.”
That includes at-school arrests for minor behavioral incidents, as well as what he calls more indirect actions, like suspensions, expulsions or references to juvenile court or alternative schools.
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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
Such practices have grown in the last 10 to 15 years, he said. “It really started out mostly in very low income communities of color, the schools in those districts. It’s expanded pretty dramatically beyond that.”
In a high-profile Delaware case in 2009, a 6-year-old was almost suspended for 45 days for having his Cub Scout knife at school. The school board intervened to cut that to three to five days.
The combination of zero-tolerance school rules, themselves fueled by safety fears, and the kind of high-stakes testing required by the federal government “create some of these dynamics,” Freeman contended.
Low-performing schools are under such pressure to meet testing benchmarks that some neglect the education of some struggling students, even pushing them out of school, reports suggest. Data compiled in a 2010 Advancement Project report finds that in several U.S. states, there was a link between the adoption of high-stakes testing and increased use of suspensions and expulsions.
“Race has certainly played a role in where we have elected to implement these policies and practices,” Freeman added, “I think the data is pretty clear.”
By mid-October Meridian could land in court because of the federal investigators’ allegations. The DOJ threatened to file suit by then if the city and county and state agencies don’t start “meaningful negotiations” with the federal agency.
Click here to read our in-depth story on the school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian, Miss.
In recent years, juvenile justice advocates, lawyers, policy-makers, and reformers have increasingly sought to raise awareness of the American phenomenon of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The term refers generally to the process in which substandard public schools fail to provide adequate support and resources for at-risk children and their families, resulting in high drop-out rates and ultimately leading to court-involvement, detention and incarceration.
More specifically, the term refers to the pattern in which students who have committed school-based wrongdoing — whether by pushing another child in the hallway, taking a pencil from a teacher’s desk, or disrupting class — are summarily arrested, charged with violating a criminal offense, and prosecuted in juvenile delinquency court. After a judge finds them delinquent, youth are then placed on probation and court-ordered to comply with a long series of conditions, typically including that they not be suspended (or not be suspended again) from school. In many jurisdictions when a juvenile on probation is suspended — even for a minor infraction at school — the consequences of the violation may include incarceration in a detention center.
Research has shown that youth who are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline are likely to be those who are already the most vulnerable: low-income students, children of color, English language learners, youth in foster care, students with disabilities (whether physical, psychological, or developmental), and homeless children. Often such students fall into more than one of these categories.
It is against this background that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a stunning letter last week summarizing the findings of a comprehensive investigation into the unconstitutional treatment of children in Meridian, Miss. In its press release, the DOJ asserts that the local police, the county juvenile court, and the state agency in charge of the juvenile detention center in Meridian, “help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution.”
The letter, authored by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, details a systemic process that begins when the Meridian Police Department automatically arrests all students who are referred to the police by the Meridian Public School District for disciplinary infractions, including dress code violations.
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The police “do not assess the facts or circumstances of the alleged charge, or whether the alleged conduct actually qualifies as an arrestable offense.” Instead, they serve as a “taxi service” from the schools to the juvenile detention center, “routinely” handcuffing and arresting students without custody orders or an independent determination of probable cause. After the student reaches the detention center, an intake officer issues a “temporary” custody order, and then a Lauderdale County Youth Court judge holds a hearing and issues a detention order — again without a probable cause finding. These proceedings also violate federal law requiring that children taken into custody receive detention hearings within 48 hours, as Meridian’s juvenile court hearings — including detention hearings — are held only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As for the juvenile’s right to counsel, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 with In re Gault, the DOJ found that children in Meridian are “not always” appointed an attorney for detention or adjudication hearings, and that the public defender who is appointed “does not provide children and guardians with meaningful or effective representation.” Following adjudication, the juvenile court places children on probation, requiring them to serve any school suspensions for alleged disciplinary infractions while incarcerated in the juvenile detention center. In short, the existing due process protections provided by Meridian’s juvenile justice system are both “illusory and inadequate.”
As is typical of districts impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline, the Meridian students most severely affected by these practices are African-American children and children with disabilities. The DOJ letter specifies that while Meridian’s general population is approximately 62 percent black and 36 percent white, student enrollment in the public schools is 86 percent black and 12 percent white. Approximately 13 percent of Meridian’s students are identified as having disabilities, and its students are suspended or expelled at a rate almost seven times the rate for Mississippi schools statewide.
During the course of their eight-month investigation, the Civil Rights Division unsuccessfully sought access to Meridian juvenile court records and an opportunity to speak with its personnel. Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young and county officials refused to allow DOJ to observe court proceedings, interview staff, or review files. They also directed the city to deny DOJ access to the law enforcement records of the children referred by the schools to the Meridian Police Department. Although DOJ seeks “meaningful negotiations” with the involved agencies and believes that a “collaborative approach” to resolving the violations “would be productive,” a federal lawsuit against state, county and local officials will be filed if “expeditious” progress is not made.
This is not the first time that Meridian’s mistreatment of children and teens has drawn the attention of authorities. Several years ago, the town’s juvenile detention center was the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A settlement was reached in 2010 that ended the detention center’s policy of confining youth in unsanitary cells for 23 hours each day, punishing them with Mace or pepper spray, and locking them in a mechanical “restraint chair.”
Lauderdale County officials agreed to provide meaningful rehabilitative, educational, and recreational programs as well as upgraded mental health screening and adequate medical treatment for those held at the center. They also agreed to consider community-based alternatives to detention. It is unclear whether these reforms were implemented.
In regard to the current allegations against those entrusted to care for and serve the children of Meridian, the media will likely portray them as an anomaly—a situation that is limited to the backwaters of Mississippi and not at all illustrative of the general quality of juvenile justice in the United States. From my perspective, however, while the evidence is indeed shocking, the reality is that the school-to-prison pipeline exists in many—too many—of our nation’s struggling school districts. More stunning, perhaps, is the federal government’s explicit acknowledgement that the phenomenon exists, that the pattern of conduct is unconstitutional, and that it must end.
The Meridian case also differs from incidents such as the “kids for cash” scandal uncovered several years ago in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in which juvenile court judges were motivated by financial gain to illegally sentence thousands of children to private juvenile detention centers in a racketeering scheme that netted them millions of dollars. In contrast, the agency personnel and officials in Meridian are unfairly treating children out of “systemic disregard” for their welfare. Meridian police “may subjectively believe that they are acting appropriately” in following established policy, but they have diverted their attention from the larger — and graver — picture. In other words, these violations stem from detachment and impassivity, from a failure to consider each child as an individual. The teachers, administrators, police and judges of Meridian view these young people as all the same, indistinguishable from one another, defined by their alleged infractions, and assumed to be guilty and deserving of incarceration. As a result, thousands of children — mostly African-American, many of whom are disabled — have unnecessarily been arrested, handcuffed, adjudicated as juvenile delinquents, and incarcerated. They have been stigmatized by an insidious “cycle of incarceration.” They have been socialized to believe that they are not worth any more than the next name on the juvenile court docket.
Yes, the “serious and longstanding” violations uncovered in Mississippi are unacceptable and should be condemned. But they are not limited to a single town in the South. The school-to-prison pipeline exists in cities, suburbs and towns all across the United States. It is not only there. It is here.
An amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.
Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.
“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”
Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.
“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”
Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.
It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.
Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.
Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.
Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.