Bigger detention center, more collaboration top recommendations
By Cynthia M. Jeffries
Making a dent in Lee County’s juvenile crime numbers by the 21st century will require better handling and housing of offenders as well as a community effort to prevent children from becoming delinquency statistics.
That was the finding of a 10-month Community 2000 Task Force study set up to look at juvenile crime.
The 27-member task force released its 10-page report last week. To come up with their recommendations, members – including educators, counselors, law enforcement officers and parents – listened to Youth Court judges and juvenile crime experts from Lee County and other areas across the state then attempted to spell out what was needed to turn the juvenile situation around in Lee County.
Topping the task force’s list is the need for a bigger juvenile center.
“We are not saying building a jail in and of itself is the answer. It has to be a collaborate effort – a conglomeration of a lot of different factors,” said Dr. Cathy Grace, director of the Family Resource of Center in Tupelo and facilitator for the Community 2000 Task Force.
“If there is not a sufficient detention facility, the other plans won’t work as well,” Grace said.
Since August 1993, Lee County has been using a six-bed, steel, trailer-type building as its juvenile center. On occasion, 12 or more juveniles have been housed in the facility at one time. Lee County ranks sixth in the state for the highest number of juveniles incarcerated.
In 1995, 64 more juveniles were held in the facility than in 1994, said Lee County Jail Administrator Benny Carson. Though the county occasionally takes juvenile offenders from other counties, 90 percent of those in the small holding facility are from Lee County, Carson said.
Lee County ‘s facility
When Lee County’s juvenile facility originally rolled on to the north parking lot of the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, it was supposed to be a temporary building providing temporary relief to the juvenile crime problem.
The building was purchased after federal officials ordered Mississippi to stop housing juveniles within sight or sound of adult offenders. In 1989, the state was given three years to rectify the problem.
By Jan. 1, 1993, Lee County – as well as other areas in the state – still did not have a place to put its youthful law breakers. Lee County officials quickly obtained the temporary facility and moved in.
Because of a federal court order to improve the adult facility, decision-makers have spent the majority of their time since 1993 looking for a suitable site for an adults, putting plans for the juvenile facility on hold.
A 1992 study showed a 30-bed juvenile facility was needed for Lee County. A building that size meeting all state and federal requirements would cost $1.5 million to construct and $300,000 to maintain annually, Lee County Administrator Ronnie Bell estimated.
Some of the operational costs could be offset by fees collected from other counties that house their juvenile offenders in Lee County.
In 1994, Lee County collected $50,000 from other areas for holding juveniles. To date, Lee County has $250,000 in a reserved grant that will be used to build a permanent facility.
Juveniles can be held for up to 21 days before being sent home, appearing before a Youth Court judge or being handled in an informal setting with a Youth Court counselor, which 80 to 85 percent of cases are.
Another recommendation made by the group includes encouraging state officials to explore programs that would curb illegal behavior before it gets to a stage that would require a child be sent to one of the state’s two training schools or into the state prison system.
Now that the study is complete, the task force members will try to gather support from educators and state, county and city officials. The first stop is with the Tupelo Public School District. Then the group will meet with Lee County School District officials.
The plan is to get the program and suggestions implemented by the year 2000.
What is Community 2,000?
Community 2000, an effort initiated by CREATE Foundation to help the community focus on itself, hosted 13 town meetings in 1994 to identify community concerns. The concerns that came out of those meetings were placed on a ballot that November. Vote totals showed juvenile crime was the No. 1 concern among the 6,467 people who voted. Some of the other areas of concern were schools, adult crime and affordable housing.
In 1995, the juvenile crime task force was formed. The members were asked to try to find a way to keep more juvenile crimes from being committed as well as to look at a suitable solution for rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.
Some of the items listed in the study are already under way.
In November, the Tupelo Police Department started a three-person juvenile unit. Headed by Master Sgt. Cliff Hardy of the department’s detective division, the unit tracks juvenile offenders who have been released from a state training school to make sure they are meeting their Youth Court mandates and are adhering to their curfews.
“If we don’t stay on top of things – if we don’t keep making an effort to keep the crime rate down – we are going to start seeing our crime rate going back up,” said Lee County Youth Court Counselor David Anthony.