Harrison County considers juvenile justice changes

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Harrison County is looking to improve its juvenile justice system. Rather than locking-up young offenders, a new program suggests finding alternatives to incarceration. It's called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

The idea is to find other options, like rehabilitative programs, rather than simply locking-up kids.

Harrison County's Youth Court hosted a workshop on the initiative Friday. Juvenile justice consultant, Orlando Martinez, told the group youth detention is often a place of "last resort" or "least resistance".

"And so what happens? They go to the place that never rejects or ejects kids. That's the juvenile court and detention," said Martinez.

He says the push for alternatives to incarceration will face opposition from those who feel it's being "soft or liberal" on criminals. That includes some parents of young offenders.

"Parents that just come in there and say "lock 'em up, I'm not going to take 'em home."  It happens every week in this court," said youth court Judge Margaret Alfonso.

Keezie Wells-Daniels works with youth through Mississippi DHS.  She says most simply need some attention and direction, not a jail cell.

"They're not always bad, they make mistakes. And whenever we give them our time and attention and help them and kind of change their way of thinking, then a lot of times that will deter them and they'll go on the right road instead of the wrong road," she said.

The chief of police for Biloxi schools is convinced alternatives to lock-up are worth considering.

"They need counseling. They need other programs. They need things they can use to focus on themselves and better themselves to be better people," said Paul Cannette.

Finding alternatives could also save money.   Incarceration is costly: up to 200 dollars a day for each young offender.

"It's a savings to the taxpayers, not to mention the long term savings of hopefully reducing the adult population in jail. What we're trying to do is make a difference in these children's lives so they don't wind up in the adult system," said Judge Alfonso.

Friday marked the second meeting of "stake holders" in the Harrison County juvenile justice system.

They've begun the task of setting goals and working out details on how best to implement this "alternatives to incarceration" approach.

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