Justice Dept. expects Miss. training schools improvements

Published 4:31 pm Thursday, August 31, 2006

Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice say they want Mississippi’s two training schools to be safe places for the juveniles they house.

“You don’t owe many people in society more than we owe kids, especially once you take them into custody,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Wan J. Kim, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division.

Kim and other Justice Department officials toured Oakley Training facility on Tuesday. They also will visit Columbia Training School.

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Oakley in Hinds County serves male offenders ages 10 to 17, and Columbia serves female offenders ages 10 to 18.

In May 2005, Mississippi entered a four-year consent decree to end a Justice Department lawsuit over abuse allegations at the training schools.

The monitor’s latest report concluded most conditions hadn’t been met although it noted some progress had been made.

The report found unsanitary bathrooms, insufficient numbers of trained staff — and disagreement about what constituted abuse by the staff.

Don Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said improvements have been slow but are continuing.

Others don’t agree.

Juvenile schools don’t reduce crime, said Sheila Bedi, co-director of the Mississippi Youth Justice Project.

“We’re wedded to this archaic model when everybody else is moving away from it,” she said.

A 2005 Justice Department study concluded military models don’t work, she said.

“Eighty-five percent of those now in training schools could be kept in their communities,” Bedi said.

Taylor said the schools no longer house runaways, truants or the mentally ill.

“The kids who are there need to be there,” he said.

Taylor said more than 18,000 children are taken to youth courts in Mississippi and only 5 percent wind up at training schools.

These schools help to instill purpose and discipline, he said.

“I’d like to keep them (young offenders) long enough so that we’re more confident they’re rehabilitated,” he said. “Right now, I’m not keeping them long enough.”

In July, a $10 million lawsuit was filed, alleging a male employee of Columbia sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl multiple times in August 2005.

If such allegations are true, they simply won’t be tolerated, Kim said.

The department is continuing to monitor the situation but is avoiding additional litigation because the state is working on reforms, he said.

“We’ve had problems with Oakley and Columbia, and we’re going to work through them,” Kim said. “We don’t want to drain the state of resources that could be better used on the problem.”