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'Zero to Eagle': Tupelo teen becomes area's first female Eagle Scout

TUPELO • As a Scout, Grace Price undoubtedly loves a good trail. So, it probably makes sense that she'd enjoy blazing one.

When she receives her pin in mid-May, the 18-year-old will be the first female Eagle Scout in the 12-county Yocona Area Council, which covers the entirety of Northeast Mississippi. It's a designation that practically guarantees she'll be an inspiration to young girls for years to come.

Not that she hasn't already grown accustomed to a leadership role. To earn her Eagle, she's had to serve as a Senior Patrol Leader throughout most of her time in Scouts. That put her over younger participants, helping them learn the ropes and develop their skills.

"You think twice about everything you do," Price said when asked about serving as a role model for young girls.

Behind her, a large fire crackled and spit inside the brick fire pit she built as the community project required to earn the rank. Naomi Wise, one of the young members of the troop, sat and watched the wood burn.

"You have to do what you think the people watching you, looking up to you ... you want them to do right," Price said.

Price is one of only a handful of Scouts — somewhere between 2% and 4% since the organization formed in 1910 — who make it to the coveted top rank. To do so requires drive and determination — even more so for the first girls who attempted it.

Boy Scouts of America, now rebranded as Scouts BSA, began allowing female troops in February 2019. Price's troop, 92, chartered the following month with five female members.

Price, 16 at the time, was one of them.

According to the organization's rules, Scouts must earn the rank of Eagle by their 18th birthday. That gave Price a scant two years to accomplish a goal most members spend many more years building toward.

"Zero to Eagle in two years is a phenomenal feat," said Debbie Dabbs, Troop 92 Scoutmaster. Dabbs has been involved in Scouts since 1981, when her son joined at age 6. She's seen countless members come and go. Some earned their Eagle; most didn't.

From the beginning, Dabbs felt Price would be among those who earned the rank.

"She was focused on doing this," Dabbs said. "She went to camp every time we went to camp. She hasn't missed any meetings. And now, she's all about helping the other girls get Eagle."

Dabbs and Price attend the same Tupelo-based church, New Life Assembly of God, where Price's father pastors. They've known each other for years. It was Dabbs who inspired Price to join Scouts BSA in the first place.

"When she started this, I just said, 'Yeah, I'll do that,'" Price said. "Everyone we knew had always been in it — all of our church family."

Price's mother, Trisha Price, said her daughter had been Scouting-adjacent for years.

"It wasn't (unexpected) that once they decided to (allow girls) she'd want to join," she said.

Which makes sense. Troop 9 has been meeting at the church for years. When Dabbs formed 92 (or "nine, too," as it's affectionally called), it was only natural some members of the congregation might join, particularly those like Price who weren't able to become Scouts until 2019.

Rick Wise, assistant Scouts executive for the Yocona Area Council, said people like Price, who had been on the outskirts of Scouting all her life, were the reason Scouts BSA expanded its membership to girls.

"There were so many Scoutmasters that had daughters. And they'd be standing over on the edge, not in uniforms. Couldn't participate. Couldn't earn badges," he said. "Families have been wanting to participate as a whole family for a long time. The Boy Scouts listened and decided they needed to open up to the whole family and become family Scouting."

For Dabbs, who has been involved in Scouting for decades without ever having been able to earn the rank of Eagle herself, the change has been inspiring. As soon as Scouts BSA announced it would allow girls to join, Dabbs knew she would form a troop.

"I have three boys. They asked me, 'You're going to take the girl troop?' I told them, 'Yep. Gonna talk to them just like they're boys, too,'" Dabbs said with a laugh.

Female members of Scouts BSA form their own troops but participate in district, regional and national events with all other Scouts, regardless of gender.

One year, Price was one of only two members of her troop to participate at the regional gathering of Scouts, called a "camporee." The event included a competition of sorts. Naturally, she joined.

"It was a skills thing. There was trivia, knot-tying, first aid, lashing ... all that stuff," she said.

She grinned.

"We got first place out of everyone, and it was just us two," she said. "Just us two, and all the boys' troops have five or more people that could help them do it."

The group laughed together, delighting in the story. Trisha Price said she believes her daughter has grown into her role as a leader.

"I think, for her, it was about being able to go into a leadership role," Trisha Price said. "She's a very outgoing child. This was a great way to meet people and to help other people."

The younger Price isn't as certain about the change, or, at least, how to define it.

"I don't know," she said. "Maybe I'm nicer. I feel like I'm more organized, that's for sure."

Whatever she's learned, she's determined to pass it on to her fellow Scouts. And while she may be the area's only female Eagle Scout right now, Price knows she won't hold that distinction for very long.

"They're all pretty driven," Price said of her fellow female Scouts. "They'll get there. Maybe not as fast, but they'll get it done."

Meadow Lake residents sue addiction recovery center, city of Tupelo

TUPELO • Candidates seeking election to the Ward 6 City Council seat have found themselves navigating controversy over litigation involving a west Tupelo neighborhood’s objections to a sober living home.

As he runs for re-election to his seat, incumbent Mike Bryan has tried to assure residents of the Meadow Lake neighborhood who oppose the sober living home that he’s an ally.

The Daily Journal obtained a letter Bryan distributed to at least some residents of the area earlier this year. In the letter, Bryan said he has been in “constant contact” with the city’s attorney regarding the suit.

“I will continue to work closely with our legal team to ensure the homeowners of Meadowlake subdivision are protected as far as legally possible,” Bryan wrote in the letter.

Bryan’s assurances came even as he faced a field of challengers that included Sherri McClain — a Meadow Lake resident and a party to the lawsuit.

But McLain’s candidacy ended on April 6 when she won only 11% of the vote in a primary.

That puts Bryan in a runoff against Janet Gaston — and Gaston is far more removed from the legal controversy involving 1st Step Sober Living, which is now in the hands of the courts.

Lawsuit involves neighborhood covenants, federal housing law

In September 2020, residents of a west Tupelo neighborhood located off Chesterville Road filed suit in Lee County Chancery in a bid to block the planned presence of 1st Step Sober Living in the neighborhood.

Resident argue that an addiction recovery home would violate the neighborhood’s restrictive covenants. These covenants specify that structures in the neighborhood must be used for residential purposes only and that homes cannot perform “any activities that may become an annoyance to the neighborhood.”

The owners of 1st Step Sober Living have filed a counterclaim arguing that the home is protected under the provisions of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act and may open in Meadow Lake without interference.

After the suit was filed, Chancellor Jacqueline Mask granted an order for a temporary restraining order, which bars the sober living facility from accepting any residents or altering the facility.

Mask last year recused herself from the suit, and it has now been re-assigned to Chancellor Brad Tennison

The neighborhood residents, through their attorney Wayne Doss, declined to comment because the litigation remains ongoing.

Stephen Reed, Tupelo’s assistant city attorney, also declined to comment on the suit, citing the city’s policy of not speaking about pending litigation.

Bryan told the Daily Journal this week in a statement that he supports the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act but believes the sober living home is not abiding by the city's housing ordinances.

“The proposed sober living home in the Meadow Lake subdivision does not currently meet the requirements of Tupelo’s rental housing code, building codes or development codes,” Bryan said. “These local laws are applied equally to all citizens, whether disabled or not.”

Recovery community eyes the Ward 6 council race

But one of the owners of the proposed home is disappointed he can’t even get a meeting with Bryan.

“I have personally reached out to Mike Bryan with no reply,” said Patrick Elkins. “Others in the recovery community have reached out with no reply.”

Elkins — who lives in Ward 6 — owns 1st Step Sober living with Scott Smith. Smith splits his time between Mississippi and Texas, where he owns several sober living homes in Austin.

“If people are discharging from in-patient rehab, it is known that when people do not discharge to a supportive environment their chances of success are much lower," Smith said. “We were looking to provide that for residents of Mississippi.”

Smith disputed concerns that 1st Steps Sober living would involve a “business” opening in a residential neighborhood.

“It is a home in the neighborhood. It is a home for this group,” Smith said. “There is no business being run in the neighborhood. The business is run from my office and Patrick’s office.”

Before the primaries, Elkins was vocal in his opposition to McClain’s candidacy. And even as he can’t get a meeting with his incumbent councilman, Elkins did speak with Gaston.

“I won’t say that she suggested she supported or not supported, but she replied with an understanding and a message that she would like to sit down and understand more about what we’re about and what we’re doing,” Elkins said.

Speaking to the Daily Journal, Gaston said she doesn't know the specific details of the lawsuit and declined to detail her views on the litigation.

“No matter what my opinion is, it’s not going to make a difference in the outcome,” Gaston said. “This is a legal matter, and it’s in a judge’s hands.”

The neighborhood residents have filed a motion for default judgement, and all parties are set to appear at the Itawamba County Courthouse on May 10-11 to discuss pending motions associated with the suit.

The neighborhood residents also filed a motion to bar the parties in the lawsuit from speaking about the case, but the judge denied the motion.

Editor’s Note: Parrish Alford, who reports on University of Mississippi athletics for the Daily Journal, is a plaintiff in the Meadow Lake lawsuit. He had no role in the reporting of this story.

U.S. Supreme Court denies Brett Jones appeal

TUPELO • In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has denied Brett Jones, convicted of killing his Lee County grandfather when he was 15, a new chance at freedom.

In their decision, Thursday, the Supreme Court said the state of Mississippi was not required to find a teen "permanently incorrigible" before sentencing them to life in prison without the chance of parole.

The opinion, written by Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility was not necessary before sentencing a murderer under 18 to life without parole. He added that this opinion did not change two previous Supreme Court rulings that prevented states from sentencing youthful offenders to life without parole.

"The resentencing in Jones’s case complied with (those rulings) because the sentencer had discretion to impose a sentence less than life without parole in light of Jones’s youth," Kavanaugh wrote. "The Court’s decision today should not be construed as agreement or disagreement with Jones’s sentence."

Justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Barrett joined the opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas filed a separate concurring opinion in which he agreed with the result but said he would have instead rejected outright a 2016 decision in favor of the juveniles.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. In her dissenting opinion, Sotomayor wrote that the decision “guts” prior cases in favor of minors. She called the decision an "abrupt break" and an “abandonment” of those cases. Sotomayor said that all the almost 1,500 juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences wanted was “the opportunity, at some point in their lives, to show a parole board all they have done to rehabilitate themselves and to ask for a second chance.”

Beginning in 2005, the Supreme Court had concluded in a series of cases that minors should be treated differently from adults, in part because of minors' lack of maturity. That year, the court eliminated the death penalty for juveniles. Five years later, it later barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles except in cases of murder. In 2012 and 2016 the court again sided with minors. The court said life-without-parole sentences should only be given to “the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

Since that time, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose votes were key to those decisions, have been replaced by more conservative justices. Kavanaugh, the author of Thursday's majority opinion and a former clerk to Kennedy, replaced him on the court. Kennedy had been the author of the decisions favoring juveniles in 2005, 2010 and 2016.

Because of the ruling, Jones, now 31, will have to wait another 29 years before he has any hope of being released from prison. Under state law, a prisoner sentenced to life without parole has to wait until they turn 60 before they can be considered for conditional release.

Jones was not appealing the 2005 murder conviction, which has been upheld by state courts. Instead, he appealed the sentence of life without parole. A ruling in his favor could have set a legal precedent and changed the way young offenders are sentenced when charged as adults.

Jones has spent more of his life behind bars than free. He was 15 when he was arrested in August 2004 for the stabbing death of his 68-year-old grandfather. He remained in a county jail until he was convicted of murder in 2005 and was sentenced to life without parole. He has been in a state prison ever since.

A federal court ruling that a mandatory life without parole sentence for a juvenile is cruel and unusual gave Jones his first shot at freedom. The Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Jones’ sentence in the summer of 2013 and ordered a resentencing.

In making his April 2015 resentencing decision, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gardner noted that the jury rejected the notion of self-defense and considered the lesser charge of manslaughter before finding Jones guilty of murder in 2005. The judge then sentenced him to life in prison.

In a split decision in December 2017, the Court of Appeals voted 7-2 to uphold the circuit court ruling that denied Jones parole. The dissenting judges noted that the lower court failed to rule that Jones was "permanently incorrigible" and therefore not eligible for parole.

The following summer, the state supreme court reviewed the case. In November 2018, the Mississippi the high court in a 5-4 split decision ruled there was no need for further review.

Jones appealed his case to the nation's highest court in 2020 and his attorneys presented oral arguments before the Supreme Court in November 2020.

Associated Press reporter Jessica Gresko contributed to this story.

Gov. Tate Reeves signs parole reform bill, making some prisoners eligible for early release

JACKSON • Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law Thursday significant parole reforms that could make around 2,000 inmates newly eligible for release, a year after rejecting a similar bipartisan bill from lawmakers.

The Mississippi Earned Parole Eligibility Act will take effect in July, loosening several of the state's parole regulations, which are among the strictest in the country. The laws have led to a ballooning prison population over the years with roughly two-thirds of Mississippi's 17,000 prisoners serving sentences that make them ineligible for parole, according to the advocacy group FWD.us.

In vetoing last year's bill, Reeves said it went too far and would "threaten public safety" by potentially releasing violent inmates.

On Thursday, Reeves wrote that he was also conflicted about this year's version as he weighed the need for a "measured approach to 2nd chances" while avoiding a "knee-jerk reaction" that could harm public safety. He said ultimately the tweaks lawmakers made to this year's version were sufficient.

"This bill expands parole eligibility for some — but it does not guarantee it! And not all are eligible — we were able to ensure 1st and 2nd degree murderers can’t get it," Reeves wrote. "Non-violents are eligible at 25% but committing a crime while armed gets you at least 60% of your sentence. And no one gets out JUST because they are older. Maybe best of all, habitual offenders are not included in this bill."

The bill would make a few significant changes to parole regulations for inmates who were convicted after June 30, 1995, House Corrections Committee Chairman Kevin Horan, R-Grenada, has said.

Those convicted of nonviolent crimes after that date will now be eligible for parole when they have served 25% of their sentence or 10 years, whichever is less. Under current law their only option is to serve 25% — often much longer than 10 years.

People convicted of some crimes such as murder and drug trafficking will remain ineligible under the legislation — last year's version made those convicted of murder eligible. But, those convicted of armed robbery will now be eligible at 60% of their sentence served, when before they were never considered for early release.

The legislation won bipartisan support in both the House and Senate in the final days of the legislative session last month, though several Republicans said they worried this year's version could endanger communities.

Senate Corrections Chairman Juan Barnett, D-Heidelberg, told reporters last month that loosening the parole laws would give inmates newfound hope, and allow state corrections officials to better manage behavior inside prisons. Horan added the legislation would save taxpayers money by reducing the inmate population.

Prison reform groups praised the final passage of the legislation.

“These reforms will help Mississippi begin to address its dangerously high prison population and high imprisonment rate," Alesha Judkins, state director for FWD.us, said in a statement. "By expanding parole eligibility, the state has joined several other Southern states in passing common-sense criminal justice reform measures that have safely reduced prison populations and decreased crime rates at the same time."

Several conservative groups including Empower Mississippi, an organization advocating for limited government, also pushed for the reforms and praised Reeves' decision on Thursday. The legislation comes as the U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate poor prison conditions at four facilities.

“In signing this bill, Gov. Reeves is helping to address the overcrowding problems created by the Clinton-Biden Crime Bill in the mid-1990s," Empower Mississippi President Russ Latino said in a statement. "It should be seen as a signal to the Department of Justice that we are prepared to get our own house in order, without costly federal intervention. This is a smart on crime, soft on taxpayer conservative reform."

A second major criminal justice reform bill loosening the state's habitual sentencing laws failed to win approval in the legislative session's final hours. The proposal would have retroactively changed Mississippi's sentencing regulations so that a nonviolent third felony, such as a drug crime, does not result in the person going to prison for life without parole. Lawmakers pledge to pursue a similar bill next year.