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Mississippi editorial roundup

February 6, 2019

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

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Feb. 4

The Daily Leader on creating a mental health court system in the state:

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of bills have been filed at the state Legislature. The majority of those will die, never making to the floor of either chamber for a vote. Even fewer will make it past both the House and Senate and onto the governor’s desk.

One we hope does is authored by Brookhaven Rep. Becky Currie. Currie has again filed a bill that would create a mental health court system in the state. ...

Currie’s bill would create a court system similar to drug court, but for those with mental health problems. The idea is simple: Some caught in the court system need treatment, not jail time.

The system would be set up through regional mental health centers and would have requirements like ensuring offenders are taking their medicine and following up with all appointments and treatments.

“If they don’t meet those requirements then a judge would determine whether they go to a state hospital or if they need to go to jail,” Currie said previously. “Our prisons are loaded with people who are mentally ill — some who maybe if they had the right treatment the taxpayers wouldn’t have to pay for them being in prisons. It’s the next step in Mississippi in mental health reform. I think this would save us money in the long run and be better for Mississippians. And, it’s the humane thing to do.”

There is limited data out there on whether these programs reduce recidivism, but there is data that shows these programs produce better outcomes for mentally ill offenders.

A mental health court system won’t be cheap, but Currie has argued that it is cheaper than keeping suspects who need treatment locked up in jails and prisons.

“I’ve done a lot of work with the mentally ill and making sure they don’t stay in our jails and instead are going straight to the crisis centers. It has worked well in Brookhaven so far and other states doing this save millions. Just like our drug court, we would set up a mental health court,” she said.

...

As a state, we can do better when it comes to addressing mental health needs. Currie’s bill is a good step in that direction.

Online: https://www.dailyleader.com/

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Feb. 6

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal on increasing government transparency:

We support a bill pending before the Mississippi Legislature that would increase transparency of government boards and agencies throughout the state.

House Bill 1296 would require city and county governments and state government boards and agencies to post minutes of their meetings online. Authored by Republican Jerry Tuner; who represents Lee, Prentiss and Union counties; the bill passed the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee last week. It now goes to the full House for more debate.

We believe the bill would help citizens to be better informed about the government bodies that represent them. While officials already are required to keep minutes of meetings and make them available to the public, posting those minutes online significantly increases their accessibility.

We recognize that smaller entities will have more difficulty meeting this requirement, and the bill allows for that. It exempts cities with fewer than 25,000 residents or counties with fewer than 50,000 residents from the requirement to post minutes online. The bill also allows an exemption for government entities that do not already have a website.

We would propose another solution to that challenge, however. This bill is a good opportunity to strengthen the partnership between government entities and their legal organ publications. Legal organs are the newspapers or journals that publish various government notices that are required by law. Each county has one.

Government bodies that are not able to post their minutes online should send them to their legal organ to publish on its website. In fact, the state can make that a requirement of being a legal organ.

Current law requires government bodies to keep minutes that include such details as a listing of those present and absent at meetings, a recording of any actions taken and a documentation of any votes made.

Under Turner’s bill, those entities would have to publish those minutes on their websites within 35 days of the adoption of the minutes and would have to keep them online for at least 12 months. It’s important that langue be added to the bill containing strong penalties for those who do not comply.

Increasing access to minutes of governmental meetings by no means replaces the importance of accountability reporting by watchdog journalists in those communities. Minutes are often limited in what they contain, and as noted above, there is a significant time lag before they’re available. The work of trained community journalists reporting on local governments remains as critical as ever.

But we also strongly believe the more information available on our government, the more knowledgeable the public will be. And there are public entities - such as state agencies - that do not always have a reporter present at their meetings.

This bill is a good step toward a more open and transparent government. We urge lawmakers to support that effort.

Online: http://djournal.com/

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Feb. 2

The Greenwood Commonwealth on staff shortages in the Mississippi Department of Corrections:

Typically, the Mississippi Department of Corrections prefers to avoid disclosing its problems. So its recent announcement of a significant staff shortage is one sign that this problem is a serious one.

It certainly sounds that way. Corrections Commissioner Pelecia Hall said that more than half the inmates at MDOC’s prison in Leakesville are on lockdown due to a shortage of security officers to watch over them.

The Leakesville prison, which houses 3,000 inmates, has a staff vacancy rate of 48 percent. Two other large sites have a similar problem: 42 percent of the jobs are unfilled at the State Penitentiary at Parchman, as are 46 percent of those at MDOC’s Rankin County prison.

MDOC says it has a total of 671 security jobs vacant. Although that includes more locations than the three prisons, it’s a pretty telling signal that more people have decided that the safety risks of working in a prison aren’t worth the relatively low pay.

Hall wants the Legislature to spend $7 million more annually to raise the entry-level salary for prison guards from just below $25,000 to the $28,000 to $31,000 range. She may get her way on that, as the market is obviously telling lawmakers that the current salary is too low to recruit enough guards.

It’s saying the same thing, too, about teacher pay, where the starting salary is currently about $34,000 a year. There are plenty of unfilled education jobs across Mississippi, and enrollment in teacher education programs at universities around the state is down. Pay certainly is one reason for this.

Lawmakers have floated their first proposal on teacher pay — a $500 raise for the next two years. The offer was met unenthusiastically by the teachers unions.

Chances are that’s just the opening bid. Lawmakers went into this election-year session expecting to give teachers a raise. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the person he is hoping to succeed next year, Gov. Phil Bryant, have both endorsed the idea. They’re more than likely going to try to hit a sweet spot where teachers won’t feel insulted and the treasury won’t be overly pinched

Online: http://www.gwcommonwealth.com/

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