Editorial, Thursday, March 11, 1999

CATEGORY: EDT Editorials

AUTHOR: JOER

Editorial, Thursday, March 11, 1999

Lee County’s Board of Supervisors, after dancing around the issue for years, Tuesday approved a new juvenile jail to replace a harshly criticized “temporary” detention center on Front Street in Tupelo.

The new juvenile detention center will be built on county-owned land near the Lee County Adult Jail in a secluded area near U.S. Highway 45. It will cost about $1.7 million and house 26 prisoners.

Supervisors voted 5-0 to build the jail as soon as contracts are approved by the board’s attorneys. Construction is expected to begin in late summer, with the jail occupied by late summer 2000.

Supervisors will pay for the jail by refinancing bonds used to build the adult jail and the Lee County AgriCenter entertainment arena south of Verona. The savings will fund jail construction.

Operating costs for the juvenile center are projected at $600,000 per year $440,000 more than the tiny, cramped quarters on Front Street. The higher operating cost, which might require a tax increase, will be worth every cent in enhanced safety for police officers, adequate cells for categories of prisoners requiring separate quarters under state and federal laws, and room to jail juveniles who should be detained.

Lee County Judge Jimmy Floyd, among others, worked ceaselessly to get the jail built to adequate specifications that he knew, from experience as the sitting judge for juvenile cases, were necessary. The public owes him thanks for persistence in appropriate, quiet negotiations with the supervisors, attorneys and architects.

Why a separate jail for juveniles? Why special cell separations?

The whole juvenile jail issue rests in a federal mandate that juvenile offenders cannot be housed in the same facility with adult prisoners. Physical risks and the possibility of enhancing criminal behavior among juveniles are among the reasons for the iron-clad rule. The temporary juvenile center, opened in the early 1990s, spun out from that court mandate. It is not a violation to place the detention center on the same property with an adult jail. In the case of the Lee County facility, it will be isolated from but only a short distance from the adult jail. (The adult jail also was built to comply with a federal mandate about jail conditions.)

Safety for officers and prisoners will be the greatest improvement in the new juvenile center. Its design, Floyd said earlier, will use the same safety standards applied in adult jails. Its pod system will allow separation of juvenile prisoners according to rules about categories of offense, age and, of course, gender.

The process leading to Tuesday’s decision took too long. But the board now has done what is right and necessary. Supervisors should unite in support of moving the project to completion without interruption.

Editorial 2

The Senate passed an important voting reform bill Wednesday that would accomplish one of Gov. Kirk Fordice’s consistent goals: Reducing election fraud.

Senators passed a bill approved earlier by the House that would tighten the rules governing how absentee ballots may be cast and how assistance can be provided for disabled or sick voters.

Fordice angered legislators last year when he suggested during a speech that some members of the Senate and House held office as the result of fraud. Negative bipartisan reaction brought a rewording of Fordice’s position but not an outright retraction.

Regardless of the political heat between the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion, most elected officials cite absentee voting as the most likely place fraud can occur.

Secretary of State Eric Clark proposed the reforms passed Wednesday as a part of a 1-2 punch aimed at reducing the fraudulent voting of people deceased or no longer resident in precincts where illegal votes are cast. A law enacted in 1997 empowers Clark’s office to identify names registered in more than one county, dead people still on voting rolls, and others ineligible for various reasons. The actual purging must be done by county election officials. About 100,000 probably illegal or deceased registrants have been identified. That work continues.

This year’s bill makes it harder for candidates to pay workers to solicit absentee voters and requires absentee voters to request a ballot in person, by mail or in person.

The bill is reasonable and progressive.

We agree with the governor’s concerns about absentee voting fraud. We believe the bill sent to him Wednesday strongly addresses that issue.