Gov. Haley Barbour's proposal to close Mississippi's only state-run juvenile correction facility and several mental health crisis centers could increase the burden on county jails, a sheriffs' group said Wednesday.
Barbour's plan to close the facilities came in a budget proposal aimed at helping the state deal with plummeting tax collections in the current recession. But members of the Mississippi Sheriffs' Association called a news conference Wednesday at the state Capitol to oppose the plan.
"We've been waiting too many years, waited too long for something to be done about mental health in this state," Holmes County Sheriff Willie March, president of the association, told The Associated Press before the news conference.
"It's not time to close down mental health centers and go back to putting them in county jails," he said. "The state made the right move to create these crisis centers. We were on the right track. We need to move forward, not backward."
Barbour says state officials must make hard choices to deal with Mississippi's declining revenue.
"We believe in this time of budget crisis these reductions are necessary, but the governor has said he's willing to listen to other ideas," Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said Wednesday. "In the end, we have to close this budget gap, and we have to do so responsibly."
Some people have also criticized Barbour's proposal to consolidate some universities and public schools, but he says they are needed. Top Mississippi lawmakers have drafted their own budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The full Legislature will get to vote on a final budget, which usually contains ideas from lawmakers and the governor.
With that in mind, the sheriffs' association is trying to get it's message out now.
The association believes any increase of the mentally ill in jails would hurt local budgets and "very likely expose counties to increased lawsuits and liability resulting from alleged deprivation of civil rights," its resolution said, among other things.
Another resolution opposed closing Oakley Training School, Mississippi's only state-run juvenile correction center. The sheriffs acknowledged past problems at Oakley, but said it's still better equipped to deal with juveniles than county jails.
Oakley has been hounded by a federal lawsuit and accusations of abuse in the past. The facility is under a federal court monitor as part of an agreement in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2005. The state's other juvenile correction center, Columbia Training School for girls, was shut down in February 2008.
Sheriffs don't have "the financial resources and specialized facilities necessary to manage at-risk youth and believe that their county jails are an inappropriate environment for housing such youth," the association said in another resolution.