OUR OPINION: State’s juvenile offender approach merits notice

Mississippi, not unlike many states, has a troubled history in dealing with youthful offenders. Some of its juvenile detention centers have been more training grounds for lifelong criminals than rehabilitation centers.

But the state’s approach is changing for the better, as a recent study indicates.

A report in Saturday’s Daily Journal notes that a National Juvenile Justice Network study found Mississippi is second in the nation in reducing incarceration of juveniles, another way of saying we’re putting fewer children behind bars. Between 2000 and 2010, the number dropped 73 percent – from 785 to 211 – after having spiraled upward in the previous two decades.

Some of it could be because of a drop in violent juvenile crime, but most of the reduction is intentional. State laws passed in the last decade recognized the self-defeating nature of a lock- ’em-all-up approach to juvenile offenders. Youth Court judges were given more discretion in handling juvenile offenses and the law now prevents detention for non-violent and first-time offenders in most cases.

“The object of youth court is to rehabilitate a child and not punish a child,” Lee County Youth Court Judge Charlie Brett told reporter JB Clark.

Juveniles who commit particularly heinous crimes – murder, armed robbery, rape, aggravated assault – can still be tried as adults. But gone are the days when minor offenses like skipping school or breaking curfew could get a kid detained.

Certainly juvenile offenders need to get the message that the system takes seriously what they’ve done, and there needs to be an element of healthy fear instilled. But it does the young person and society at large no favors to send him to a detention facility if other options, in the view of the judge and others involved, offer a better possible long-term outcome.

The outcome hoped for, of course, is that the juvenile offender finds his or her way on to a straighter path, stays in school and eventually becomes a productive citizen, not a costly burden on society in an adult prison.

The state has actually closed several youth detention centers in recent years, which given their histories is a good thing. And youth who are being held for trial as adults are now kept separate from incarcerated adults, removing one of the prime opportunities for a juvenile offender to fall into a lifelong criminal attitude and habit.

Mississippi’s progress in reducing juvenile incarceration shouldn’t be seen as “soft,” as some may be inclined to believe, but as a sensible and humane way to redirect lives and save future expenditures of taxpayer dollars.