By JB Clark
Almost 42,000 American youth were detained in 2010 for doing things like violating school rules, skipping school or running away.
In 2000, a record 108,802 children were held in detention centers or confined in juvenile facilities nationwide. Since that high point, Mississippi has been a national leader in reducing the number of youth behind bars, second only to Connecticut.
The number of youth being detained in public prisons and detention facilities jumped 94 percent in Mississippi, from 405 to 785, between 1985 and 2000.
In 2010, the National Juvenile Justice Network reported 357 Mississippi youth were in a public or private detention facility of some form, 211 of those in public facilities.
“The Comeback States,” a NJJN study of nine states leading the charge to reduce youth detention, attributes Mississippi’s steep decline in youth detention to new state laws that allow youth court judges more latitude in dealing with youthful offenders. The laws also restrict first-time and nonviolent offenders from being placed in detention unless all other options have been exhausted.
“The object of youth court is to rehabilitate a child and not punish the child,” said Lee County Youth Court Judge Charlie Brett. “We’re trying to turn delinquents into good citizens. We want to get them educated and get them a diploma and have them go into the workforce and be law-abiding citizens who pay taxes instead of (becoming) convicts.”
The enactment of youth sentencing laws in 2005 and 2006 greatly reduced the number of Mississippi youth being detained for small offenses.
In 2001, of the 693 youth in detention, 222 were detained for technical violations and 90 were detained for status offenses like running away or incorrigibility, according the U.S. Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement.
By 2011, just nine children were detained for technical violations and nine for status offenses.
A status offense is something that wouldn’t be considered a crime if done by an adult.
Today, youth cannot be immediately detained for status offenses like skipping school or breaking curfew. They are also not supposed to be detained as a result of their first offense or appearance in youth court.
Youth court judges have a long list of options for youthful offenders and are tasked with choosing the least restrictive alternative that is in the best interest of the child. The alternative sentence must also be within reasonable proximity to the child’s home community.
Youth who commit crimes like murder, armed robbery, rape and aggravated assault can be tried as adults in circuit court and placed in Mississippi Department of Corrections custody, even on first offense.
The reduction in youth detention also could be partially attributed to a 36 percent drop in violent youth crime nationwide since between 2003 and 2012.
Another contributing factor to a push for community-based and alternative sentencing is a growing body of research showing juveniles’ brains aren’t fully developed in the area of decision-making and risk assessment.
In “Adolescent Development and the Regulation of Youth Crime,” researchers argue, in adult courts, criminals found to have mental illness or impairment are deemed less blameworthy than typical offenders and the same principle should apply to youth.
Brett agreed. “It’s not necessarily that they’re bad children, thugs or criminals, they just don’t have sufficient judgment and reasoning power to understand and comprehend and don’t understand the law of consequences,” he said. “Most of them grow up and straighten up. Some of them, unfortunately, don’t.”
Brett said, when a juvenile comes before him, he first makes sure he or she isn’t neglected, abused or in need of supervision. If not, Brett can release the child without any action, place him or her into parental or legal guardian custody or transfer the child to the Department of Youth Services’ custody.
He also could levy a fine or suspend the child’s driver’s license for up to a year.
If supervision is needed, he can place the child in Department of Human Services custody for placement in a foster or group home. He also may place the child in a public or private institution for specific treatment, education or additional supervision.
If it is the final option or their second or greater offense, he may send youth offenders to a training school like the Department of Human Services’ Oakley Youth Development Center or assign them to the statewide juvenile workforce program.
The state also has closed many training schools and detention centers (ending boot camps and paramilitary programs in 2005 and closing the Columbia Training School in 2008, Lauderdale Juvenile Detention Center in 2012 and Pike County Juvenile Detention Center in 2013) and downsized the Oakley Youth Development Center. The state now detains all offenders who have been adjudicated as adults in their own unit – separate from Mississippi Department of Corrections adults. These measures have helped save money and reduced youth detention populations.
Brett said he sees the youth court system rehabilitate many youth and the ability to send young people for a short stint in a juvenile detention center, treatment facility or group home helps more than having to send everyone to a detention facility.