One of the key legacies of the 2005 Legislature will likely be juvenile justice.
The state, pushed in part by federal litigation, must address conditions at its two training schools for delinquents as well as its philosophy regarding juvenile rehabilitation.
Child advocates and others believe the two facilities, Oakley Training School near Raymond and Columbia Training School in Columbia, are more linked with the problems in juvenile justice than the solutions. The state should be ashamed.
State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, House Juvenile Justice Committee chairman, wants to shift the institutions from the state Department of Human Services to a separate agency.
"We can't keep putting these kids in alternative schools," Flaggs said announcing the Juvenile Justice Act of 2005. "I'm telling you, we've got to do something."
That's no riddle, if we are serious about helping keep delinquents from becoming criminals.
Why not close the training schools?
One flaw in plan
Flaggs' 124-page bill would create a department of juvenile justice operated by a nine-member board. That appears to address concerns that DHS is too large to devote the necessary time and energy to juvenile delinquency.
The bill also proposes community-based programs and less emphasis on incarceration, an element being pushed by the Mississippi Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Coalition.
Sheila Bedi, a coalition spokeswoman, said Flaggs' proposal was positive but inadequate. She said the coalition favors more treatment and education, effective tools in other states.
The big hole in Flaggs' proposal is that it keeps Oakley and Columbia — breeding grounds for litigation — operational.
Boot camps, for example, are operated at both institutions, requiring children to wear military uniforms and perform military drills.
"Quality therapeutic programming cannot occur in such a confrontational environment," the coalition said Wednesday. "The system cannot be truly reformed as long as these institutions exist."
Oakley and Columbia have been under DHS' control since 1988, when the then-state Department of Public Welfare merged with agencies of the Office of Federal State Programs.
Don Taylor, in his second stint as DHS executive director, said he wasn't prepared to comment on Flaggs' bill.
"It's comprehensive," said Taylor, a retired Army colonel. "We are still looking at it. Overall, the Legislature is going to have to answer some questions before we can make a comment."
One question has to deal with Oakley and Columbia. The U.S. Department of Justice has asserted it found physical punishment that lacked rehabilitative or educational value. The Justice Department concluded the negligence and abuse was unconstitutional.
A lawsuit is pending before U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate.
The legacy here is huge. We can help troubled young people find their way or continue, through the training schools, to assist them in becoming long-term liabilities to the community and to taxpayers.
See related: Boot Camp for Kids: Torturing Teenagers for Fun and Profit
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