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Lawmakers study juvenile justice

What is the best way to help a troubled teen? That's the question lawmakers are debating as they prepare for the 2009 Mississippi legislative session. The House Juvenile Justice Committee is looking into whether detention centers and training schools are needed, or can a juvenile offender be straightened out through community programs?

A packed room at the Capitol usually means the meeting is of great importance or high interest. This one was both. "I've been doing this for 25 years and we're light years away from when I started," said Adams County Judge John Hudson.

Hudson said no community programs existed for juvenile offenders when he started, and only two facilities were around to rehab youths. "We now have adolescent offender programs in all 82 counties in the state," Hudson said.

But the question still remains, can just community-based programs turn around a troubled teen? Mississippi Youth Justice Project director Bear Atwood said he believes they can. "If we spent our money wisely, we could really be addressing the needs of those children in a way that would keep them from ever getting to the door of our detention centers," Atwood said.

Atwood says the state currently spends $300 a day per child at Oakley Training School. And some say that money that could be better spent in our communities. "Those kids can be served in our community at a fraction of the cost and we could have better outcomes," said Atwood.

Not everyone agrees.

"You have to have a facility for kids who do wrong," said state Rep. John Hines, a Greenville Democrat. "There has to be some form of punishment in place. And we want to make sure the kids who are committing those violent crimes or do things wrong have a place to go."

Lawmakers are looking into the idea of creating a Department of Juvenile Justice. They want all 17 detention centers and the Oakley facility to have the proper staffing and materials they need to rehab and care for the juvenile offenders.

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