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How the county’s youth court is like a triage unit healing kids from criminal behavior

Juvenile court
Juvenile court(WECT)
Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 1:45 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - As Jackson’s homicide number increases daily, the county’s youth court is working as sort of a rehabilitation unit to keep young offenders from a life of violent crime.

Jackson native and Hinds County Youth Court Judge Carlyn Hicks said the work begins with how the court views everyone who enters.

“If you have the mindset that young people who engage in bad behavior and delinquent behavior end up in the penitentiary - if you approach them that way, then as my mother would say - the life you speak over someone is the life that they attain,” Hicks said. “Our children will rise to our expectations; what we expect of them is what they will give us and I’ve seen that firsthand.”

Hicks said the role of the youth court is remedial in nature where the focus is on problem-solving and connecting young people to resources.

The court has four programs to achieve this goal, three of which are new that hone in on mentorship, drug intervention, runaway prevention, and workforce development/employment.

The mentorship program began this January.

“It’s based on unique needs or maybe they want to build certain skills. We partner with non-profit organizations, youth organizations, the faith-based community, and the business community to develop a pool of mentors,” Hicks added.

The young, African American judge appointed last July, says the mentorship program was born out of need.

“I had a young lady, I’ll never forget her... she said in her neighborhood she saw nothing but death and destruction, and her mother always talked down to her and told her that she would be pregnant before she was 16 and the road she was going down... she would end up dead or diseased,” the judge said. “She sat in front of me crying and she said to me ‘to see you on that bench lets me know there could be more for me too.’”

Then in February, the court created a runaway prevention initiative with The School of Social Work at Jackson State University after noticing a lot of runaways during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We start out just talking about communication and conflict resolution and it makes a difference realizing that young people may flee home simply because they got into an argument with their parent and because of their adolescent brain, they are unaware of the dangers out there in the streets,” she said.

And just last month, the court established a work program for first-time, non-violent youth offenders. Young people are matched with an organization or a business for workforce development, personal development, life skills, and job training so they have an opportunity to develop skills and earn income.

“We see some delinquent occurrences where young people may be engaged in burglarizing vehicles or in possession of stolen goods and when we peel back the layers, there’s a poverty element there,” Judge Hicks said. “I had a 14-year-old who told me the first time he engaged in a delinquent act, he stole items out of a car to sell. And when I asked him why he told me he needed something to eat.”

Young people also get counseling and small group services in the youth court’s drug program, which began last May. Hicks said many of the young people the court serves also have a diagnosis of some mental health condition, so in the midst of rehabilitation, the court is also connecting youth to mental health providers whose treatment works in tandem with youth court programs.

“We’re hoping that our interventions would prevent them from graduating into more serious crimes,” Hicks said.

Jackson has seen 37 homicides only three months into 2021; a more than 80 % increase over homicides in 2020.

The City has discussed a plan to fight crime but has yet to say when it will be fully implemented.

Jackson city leaders recently approved a $500K agreement to pay for sheriff deputies to patrol the city but details were skimpy on exactly what the agreement was and why the funds were approved without a plan on how to use it.

Leaders say Jackson’s serious crime problem is a systemic one, rooted in poverty, mental health, easy gun access, and division among city leaders on how to combat crime.

Meanwhile, the youth court is trying to intervene to heal the city’s youngest minds.

“We are from the community, in the community, and for the community,” Hicks added. “We wouldn’t be able to do our runaway prevention program without the School of Social Work at JSU. We wouldn’t be able to do our juvenile justice mentorship program without Strong Arms of Jxn, iLead Mississippi, and others. It’s a lot of responsibility but it’s a shared responsibility between the court and the community.”

Youth who are charged with more serious crimes such as murder and crimes involving weapons do not go before the youth court.

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