Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Commission on Children’s Justice begins work

July 29, 2010

A diverse group of judges, educators and child welfare professionals met July 29 in Jackson to organize a study of the juvenile justice system.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reestablished the Commission on Children’s Justice to examine the structure and operation of the Youth Court system and interactions of the juvenile justice, child welfare and education systems. The Commission will work to improve communications and coordination between all entities which deal with abused, neglected and delinquent children.

Supreme Court Justice Randy G. Pierce of Leakesville and Rankin County Youth Court Judge Thomas H. Broome of Brandon are co-chairs. Judge Broome will head a subcommittee which will focus on the Youth Court system. Court of Appeals Judge Virginia Carlton of Columbia will lead a subcommittee which will address education issues.

Justice Pierce said, “We don’t need to just point out the flaws. We need to be a part of the solution....We need an honest, up-front perspective from you with regard to what we need to do to improve our courts.” The Commission is expected to conduct three public hearings around the state, starting in October. Dates have not been set.

Judge Broome said, “The mission we have in front of us, to improve the lives of the children of this state, is most ambitious.” He noted that many members of the advisory group have worked together before, and the agencies they represent are interconnected in their common goal to improve the lives of children. “We are all talking about the same child,” he said.

Justice Pierce said, “We have a wealth of knowledge in this room, and we hope to tap into that.”

Judge Broome said that his subcommittee will address lack of uniformity in the Youth Court system. One of the concerns is that the differing court structures and organizations coupled with different levels of resources create disparities in services available to children.

In the 20 counties which have a County Court, those judges also serve as Youth Court judges. In counties which do not have a County Court, the Chancery Judge appoints a lawyer to act in a judicial capacity as Youth Court Referee, or in a few counties, the Chancery Judge hears Youth Court cases. The city of Pearl has its own municipal Youth Court.

The education subcommittee will focus on improving educational opportunities for children who come under the jurisdiction of the Youth Court. Juveniles who get in trouble are at risk of losing educational opportunities.

Judge Carlton said that providing adequate education is a crucial element of rehabilitation. Judge Carlton said, “We can’t really address rehabilitation or options for Youth Court judges without looking at the whole child.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court created the Commission on Children’s Justice in April 2006. The original Commission laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court’s adoption of Uniform Rules of Youth Court Practice.

The Supreme Court reestablished the Commission by an order signed June 8, 2010, by Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. The order charges the Commission with developing a statewide comprehensive approach to improving the child welfare system; coordinating the three branches of government in assessing the impact of government actions on children who are abused or neglected; and recommending changes to improve children’s safety, strengthen and support families and promote public trust and confidence in the child welfare system.

The state court system receives $450,000 for Youth Courts annually under the federal Court Improvement Plan Grant. The court order reconstituting the Commission states, “A requirement for the receipt of the Court Improvement Plan Grant funds is that an advisory group be utilized to assist in the identification of areas needing improvement in the children’s justice arena, as well as making recommendations for improvement of those areas and the monitoring of the implementation of the recommended reforms.”

The new members will serve three-year terms.

Other members of the commission include: Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians Senior Youth Court Judge Kevin Briscoe of Choctaw; Holmes County Youth Court Referee Robert Clark III of Lexington; Jacqueline Dedeaux of Gulfport, Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Youth Services; Greene County Alternative School Principal Carolyn Hartfield Bishop of Beaumont; Pascagoula Public School District Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich; Mississippi Judicial College Staff Attorney William Charlton of Oxford; Ray Sims II of Jackson, director of the Office of Justice Programs of the Division of Public Safety Planning; Special Assistant Attorney General Patti Marshall of Ridgeland; Chris Cherney of Jackson, chief executive officer, Mississippi Children’s Home Services; Sandra Parks of Brandon, director of the Children’s Division of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health; Lori Woodruff of Stringer, Deputy Administrator for the Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Family and Children’s Services; Laurie Johnson of Diamondhead, executive director of CASA Mississippi; Kathy Pittman of Raymond, director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services Division of Youth Services; Kristi Plotner of Madison, Mississippi Division of Medicaid; Toni Kersh of Pearl, bureau director, Department of Education Compulsory School Attendance Enforcement; Pam Castle of Hattiesburg, Forrest County Youth Court prosecutor; Lea Anne Lemmons of Oxford, school program coordinator, Family Crisis Services of Northwest Mississippi; Joe Haynes of Jackson, Jobs for Mississippi Graduates; Alfred Martin of Ridgeland, Chairman of the State Advisory Group; House Juvenile Justice Chair Rep. Earle Banks of Jackson; House Education Committee Chair Rep. Cecil Brown of Jackson; and Sen. David Blount of Jackson.