- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 24, 2014

GREENWOOD, Miss. (AP) - The Department of Justice and Leflore County are in negotiations for a settlement over conditions at the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center.

A settlement with the Justice Department would resolve federal allegations, based on a 2009 visit by federal authorities to the site, that conditions at the facility violated the constitutional rights of youth detained there.

In a 2011 public letter of findings, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez wrote that the Department of Justice’s investigation “revealed systemic, egregious and dangerous abuses perpetuated by a lack of accountability and controls.”

A settlement between Leflore County, which operates the facility, and the Department of Justice would cover policies, procedures and training at the facility. A lawsuit has not been filed.

The facility, located near the Leflore County Courthouse, is one of 15 juvenile detention centers in the state and houses youth from a number of different counties.

Leflore County Judge Kevin Adams, who’s overseen the facility since he was appointed to the position in April 2008, said he disputed some of the Department of Justice’s findings at the time but said significant changes had been made at the facility between the visit by federal authorities in 2009 and the release of the federal report in 2011.

“In the period of time between their visit and their 2011 report, both the Youth Court and the detention center have moved to address some of those issues,” Adams said. “We were making changes independent of (the Department of Justice’s) visit but happened to dovetail into some of the department’s alleged concerns.”

Adams said the Department of Justice’s report also exaggerated some issues at the facility and that some incidents outlined in the report didn’t actually happen.

“The tone of the 2011 findings letter, frankly, was more alarmist than the conditions they actually found in 2009,” Adams said.

“Things that may have been single instances in the report sometimes sound like they’re an ongoing condition. I thought that was unfortunate at the time.”

Adams said the Department of Justice visited the juvenile detention facility again in 2013 which appeared to focus heavily on educational opportunities for juveniles held at the facility. No formal letter of findings has been issued in regards to that visit.

The Department of Justice didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The 2011 report identified problems at the facility ranging from guards regularly shackling juveniles to metal beds, arbitrary use of punishment, a lack of mental health services for suicidal youth and inadequate educational offerings at the facility, especially for juveniles with learning disabilities.

At the time of the report’s release, Adams told the Commonwealth that the findings provided “a fairly decent snapshot” of conditions in the facility in November 2009 but that significant changes - including updated grievance and complaint procedures, significant staffing changes and alterations to the facility’s discipline policy - rendered many of its findings outdated.

A draft of a settlement agreement between Leflore County and the Department of Justice, viewed by the Commonwealth, would require the county to bring policies and procedures at the facility into compliance with federal guidelines and guarantee that staff members receive regular training.

The agreement would also limit the use of isolation as a form of punishment in the facility and ensure access to medical and mental health services for juveniles detained in the facility.

The draft settlement would also allow federal authorities to periodically re-examine the facility and its records to ensure compliance with the agreement.

Leflore County Board of Supervisors Attorney Joyce Chiles, who is representing the county in the negotiations, could not be reached for comment.

Adams declined to comment on the specifics of the discussions but indicated that he anticipated an agreement might be reached in a “few more weeks.”

The Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center is one of two juvenile facilities in Mississippi to be targeted by federal Department of Justice reports.

The department issued a critical report on the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in 2012.

Adams said the juvenile detention facility and the county’s youth court system have undergone significant changes during his six years on the bench, with reform efforts focused heavily around limiting the number of days young offenders spend locked up and finding alternatives to incarceration.

Adams said he’s been working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimorebased private charity that helps vulnerable children and which supports an initiative to find alternatives to juvenile detention.

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Information from: The Greenwood Commonwealth, http://www.gwcommonwealth.com

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