PROPOSAL APPROVED TO CONSTRUCT JUVENILE JAILS
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The state Senate’s approval Tuesday of a proposal to construct two juvenile jails is an important element of an overall plan to curtail youth crime, Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said.
By a unanimous vote, the state Senate OK’d the plan to issue up to $40 million in bonds to build two prisons to house juveniles in the custody of the Department of Corrections.
“This is one of the integral parts of attacking juvenile crime,” said Musgrove. “I believe it is important to have a facility to place juvenile offenders.”
But Musgrove admitted the prisons are only a part of the overall solution to juvenile crime problems.
Musgrove said the Senate also would be considering bills in the areas of prevention and enforcement. One pending enforcement measure the Senate will consider this week would establish a Youth Court that would encompass most of the state. One prevention measure would establish a separate state agency to deal with children and families if the various state agencies do not submit a comprehensive plan to work together to battle juvenile crime.
Musgrove said Tuesday’s vote on the juvenile prisons indicates the Senate is serious about fighting the problem.
Convicted as adults
The prisons will be for juveniles convicted as adults. Steve Puckett, commissioner of the Department of Corrections, last week told members of the Senate Juvenile Justice Committee the number of juveniles being convicted as adults is growing.
He said there were 415 in the custody of the Department of Corrections between the ages of 13-19 who had been sentenced as adults. While they were convicts, he said the juveniles should be separated from the general prison population for their own protection and to receive specialized training.
Puckett said he was currently using maximum security cells, which are single-bed rooms, to house the juveniles. He said those cells are needed for the general prison population.
Sen. Rob Smith, D-Richland, chairman of the Juvenile Justice Committee, said during debate on the bill that the new prisons would not “just house the juveniles.” He said various literacy and jobs skills would be taught.
“They will try to instill some value system,” said Smith, who authored the bill. “…They will be treated as hard-core prisoners, but knowing there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The bill calls for one of the prisons to be state-operated and the other to be privately run. Both would house 250 juveniles. The bill gives the state the authority to issue up to $40 million in bonds, which would be paid back over an extended period of time, to building the prisons.
While there was no opposition to the prisons project, there was controversy on where the buildings would be placed. The bill calls for the prisons to be built in Lauderdale, Wilkinson, Sharkey or any other county where the supervisors request one of the two jails.
Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, offered an amendment to have reference to the three counties removed. But Smith and others defeated the amendment by arguing that those three counties already had gone through a time-consuming and costly process to be placed on a list. Other counties that did the same thing would have just as much of an opportunity to be the site of a prison.
Senators also expressed concern that regional concerns be considered when state officials decide on a location for the prisons. Sen. Steve Seale, R-Hattiesburg, said with juveniles it is important that the prisons be close enough for family to visit.
Sen. Travis Little, D-Corinth, was successful in getting an amendment added to the bill stating that one be built in north Mississippi and one be built in south Mississippi.
An amendment also was passed to limit the prisons to juveniles age 17 and under.
The bill now goes to the House.