By Bobby Harrison
JACKS0N – DeShawn, a 17-year-old at Murrah High School in Jackson, said half of his friends from school have been killed.
A 9-year-old girl from Poindexter Elementary School in Jackson said, “We just need to quit killing – be friends. The same God made all of us.”
The two were among the nine students who testified Thursday in front of the state Senate Juvenile Justice Committee. All nine children had spent time in alternative schools after they were taken out of the regular classroom for disciplinary reasons.
“I live in the downtown area with my grandma,” DeShawn said. “It is not a pretty place.” DeShawn said he would have no trouble buying alcohol or even crack cocaine in his neighborhood.
For about a year in his neighborhood, DeShawn lived on his own. He said he went to school and walked to work at Taco Bell not because somebody was making him, but because he wanted to better his life.
Despite that commitment, DeShawn ended up in a fight at school and was placed in the alternative school, he said.
Trying to help the countless children in the state like DeShawn and trying to protect the community from many of these children who turn violent are at the heart of the mission of the Juvenile Justice committees in the House and Senate.
Who can fix it
“It is a monumental task,” said state Sen. Rob Smith, D-Richland, who is chairman of the committee.
But Smith said state government can play a big part in fighting the juvenile crime problem and preventing these children from turning to a life of crime.
Gov. Kirk Fordice, who sat in to hear the children testify, said the problem goes way beyond what state government can do. He said at the heart of the problem is the nation’s high illegitimacy rate and the decline of the family.
“Government can nibble around the edges,” Fordice said after the meeting. “But until you have a national change of heart and this country decides it is totally unacceptable for a 5-year-old to commit a felony, you are not going to get it turned around.”
Fordice then added, “The fixing part I don’t think is government solvable.”
But other state officials disagreed.
“I hope that is not what he meant,” state Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, said of Fordice’s comment that government cannot fix the problem. “I agree it is not the kind of problem you can solve entirely by government. But government has a rightful role.”
If government does not play that role, Turner said the problem will get much worse.
Smith, who wrote the law mandating convicted criminals serve 85 percent of their sentencE, said there are many things government can do. He suggested making it more difficult to get a divorce and mandating more divorce counseling when children are involved.
What will work
Attorney General Mike Moore, who also attended some of the meeting, said children must be made to fear the criminal justice system. He said there is too much of a delay from when a someone is charged with a crime until that person is sent to prison when convicted.
“We need very few new laws,” Moore said. “If the criminal justice system works, it is quite a deterrent on the streets.”
Moore said the Corrections Department also needs a facility to house juveniles convicted of adult crimes. Under Mississippi law, all 17-year-olds convicted of a felony are sent to the Department of Corrections. Children as young as age 13 who commit violent crimes also are remanded to the custody of the Department of Corrections.
“I think you can save some of these kids lives,” Moore said. “But it is not going to be at Parchman. It must be where there are programs for kids.”
Smith said the state needs to provide more money to school districts where 60 percent or more of the students are on the reduced or free lunch program. He said the high numbers are indications of poverty. He said often students in these communities end up committing crimes.
He said it would cost $43 million to reduce the student-teacher ratio to 18-1 in these schools. Currently it is about 26 students for each teacher statewide.
Smith said more emphasis also has to be put on programs like Head Start to teach values at a prekindergarten age.
Dr. Tom Burnham, state superintendent of education, said counselors can pinpoint at an early age (kindergarten or earlier) the children who run a high risk of getting into trouble.
“But a significant portion of the population doesn’t want government working with children at an early age,” Burnham said. “I don’t think anyone should interfere if it is a stable family and environment. But if it is not, then somebody needs to intervene.”
The problem with many of the proposals is the cost. The proposals are expensive. But Turner pointed out it also is expensive to put people in prison.
“It is a vicious cycle,” he said. “The more you neglect in this area (working with children at an early age) the more you put in corrections.”