By Margaret Baker | The Sun Herald
An amended law that took effect this month prevents law enforcement officials from charging 17-year-olds as adults in most nonviolent felony cases.
Youth Court and law enforcement officials are keeping a close eye on the law to see how it’s going to affect the already overburdened Youth Court system.
“There are some juveniles that can be helped and I’m all for rehabilitation,” Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd said. “But, in my opinion, the ones who are 17 know the difference between right and wrong and should be charged as adults. They should be held accountable. I think the age should’ve been lowered to 16.
“A lot of these older (kids) know if they go to Youth Court, they probably are going to be placed in a probationary situation. I’m not criticizing the youth courts. They are following the law. But we already have a lot of repeat offenders in the system and now we’ll probably see more and more of that. To me, this is just going to make our job harder.”
Some youth advocates consider the change a blessing for young offenders. But the majority of South Mississippi officials say they expect to see a lot of repeat offenders who will end up in the adult system by the time they are 18.
Retired Youth Court Judge Michael Ward, one of the state’s longest-serving youth judges, has described what’s going to happen as a result of the law as the “wholesale transfer of juveniles to the adult system after committing crime after crime without any consequences for their acts” in the juvenile system.
Ward said the repeat offenders know the juvenile justice system well and know they can’t be held long. Many of these offenders, law enforcement officials said, will go back to the streets to commit more crime without any fear of any real consequences.
Legislators amended the law following state budget cuts reducing bed space for offenders. Currently, thousands of teens statewide are under youth-court supervision. The law restricts juveniles from being held more than 90 days, and only 17 counties in the state have youth court facilities to house the offenders. Those that do have a facility, such as the ones in Harrison and Jackson counties, are required to report to a judge when they have overcrowding issues. Most of the facilities hold a maximum of 27 youths, with even more limited space for female offenders.
Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso said it’s too soon to say exactly how the system can handle the additional case load, though it’s already going to be financial burden because legislators have not allocated any additional funding to the youth system to cover the added expenses for a growing number of offenders.
“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile system with no increase in resources,” she said. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”
Like other youth court officials, Alfonso also has concerns about mixing the 17-year-old offenders with the much younger youth offenders. “I want to protect the younger offenders from the older offenders,” she said. “I agree with law enforcement that we have some fairly sophisticated 17-year-olds. How are we going to protect our younger offenders?”
The sentencing options for juveniles are limited as well. Oakley Training School in Hinds County is the state’s youth rehabilitation center but it has limited beds to house juveniles. In 2009, the school housed an average of 125 boys but still has limited space available. The Department of Human Service has plans to make more space available to females.
Alfonso pointed out the state also requires that they are mandated to provide an education and medical services to the offenders and there are no funds added to the budget to cover that. In addition, she said, clinical psychologists are needed to do evaluations in many cases. The Youth Court also conducts hearings in some cases to determine if the offenses the juveniles is charged with and other criteria support a decision to have that juvenile transferred to the adult system.
The bottom line, she said, is that more funds likely are needed in the Youth Court system.
Meanwhile, South Mississippi law enforcement officials say they will continue to enforce the laws, arresting juvenile and adult offenders and charging them in accordance with state laws.
Gulfport Chief Alan Weatherford said he does have some concern about the older repeat juvenile offenders committing more and more crimes.
“It is a slight concern when you talk about housing for juveniles in Gulfport,” Weatherford said. “We do address and track crime and I hope it doesn’t cause a slight increase in crime by the 17-year-old juvenile offenders.”
Either way, he said, “Ultimately, the public is the one that suffers.”