Meet Johnnie McDaniels, the new judge who wants to rethink Hinds County’s juvenile justice system

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Michelle Liu, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Johnnie McDaniels with his campaign truck outside Bakers Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Hinds County on Sept. 23, 2018.

When Johnnie McDaniels first arrived to take charge of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center in 2015, he recalled the youth detention center as upholding the classic school-to-prison pipeline for Hinds County children.

McDaniels, who had previously lost a bid to unseat youth court Judge Bill Skinner, began to draw more funding, hire more staff and generally push the detention center to meet the requirements of a federal order handed down in 2012.

“This facility is on the verge of being the model facility for the state of Mississippi in terms of the types of services we provide on a daily basis,” McDaniels said in an interview, reflecting on Henley-Young’s progress in the last three years.

Case managers follow children through the system. Juveniles now have access to mental health care while in Henley-Young. The detention center also has classes that Jackson Public Schools teachers teach, causing one person to quip that Henley-Young has the “safest and best” school in the city, McDaniels said.

Earlier this year, McDaniels took a leave of absence from his job as the executive director of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center to run for retiring Hinds County Court Judge Bill Skinner’s seat, a position he ran for unsuccessfully four years ago before taking helm of the youth detention center. This time around, McDaniels beat runner-up and Raymond attorney John Fike in a runoff election with over 63 percent of the vote, unofficial results show.

McDaniels, alongside newly elected judges Adrienne Wooten and Faye Peterson, believes they could transform the judicial landscape in Mississippi’s most populous county. He wants to revisit how the court moves juveniles charged as adults through the system and how programs like youth drug courts work (or don’t) in Hinds County.

Although most youth court judges oversee both abuse and neglect cases as well as the delinquency docket, those cases are assigned to separate judges. McDaniels would like to combine the dockets that consider all these cases.

“Those things are not separate and distinct,” McDaniels said. “They need to be under one umbrella so you can address those issues holistically and move forward in such a way that you understand that correlation between juvenile justice and what happens with our adult people.”

McDaniels’ docket plan is contingent on senior judge Melvin Priester Sr., who assigns the dockets for all three county judges.

When McDaniels first ran for judge in 2014, it was “to challenge the incumbent judge who I thought was not appreciating the change in dynamics of juvenile justice, not only in Mississippi but across this country, where the detention-first philosophy, the one-shoe-fit-all approach was simply not working, especially here in Hinds County.”

The county’s youth detention center has been under a federal consent decree since 2012 because of conditions that federal court monitor Leonard Dixon said were “deplorable.” The center now also houses juveniles charged as adults before they go to trial.

As with much of the county’s criminal justice system, Henley-Young has been plagued by funding issues and pretrial delays that leave juveniles locked up for months without indictments.

System players in Hinds County’s juvenile justice system characterize McDaniels as being in the unique position of knowing that system from all angles. McDaniels, once a prosecutor for the city of Jackson and municipal judge in Utica, hopes his accumulated experiences at each point in the system will allow him to preside from the bench this coming January.

Though judicial elections are nonpartisan, McDaniels posed in photographs with Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson (who backed him on a sample ballot earlier this year) and was backed by the state’s Democratic party.

Hinds County jail still lags on reforms, report finds

Dixon, the federal court monitor, noted that after McDaniels took charge of Henley-Young, McDaniels has hired and trained more staff, worked in conjunction with the courts, detention center staff and the board of supervisors “to get kids what they needed.”

“That means decisions that he makes are going to be actually better for the kids because having that experience of working with kids on the confinement side gives him an equal understanding of how things work from a systems standpoint,” Dixon said.

All juvenile justice court judges, like McDaniels, should spend time working in juvenile institutions “so they can get a feel for what’s going on, Dixon added.

Southern Poverty Law Center

Jody Owens II, managing attorney of the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center

“Johnnie’s always been a stand-up guy,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents the plaintiffs for the Henley-Young consent decree.

Owens said that once McDaniels became director of the detention center, he “started to see significant movement” by the county to come into compliance with the consent decree. It’s possible that McDaniels, on the bench, could help oversee the consent decree to completion, Owens added.

“Frederick Douglass, I think, said it best — either you’re going to build strong children or you’re going to have to try to prepare broken men and women,” McDaniels said. “We’ve had that backwards in Hinds County for the last ten years, at least as it relates to our juvenile justice system.”