Want Change? Get Involved
“Young adults have a powerful voice, and they should be encouraged to use it,” says Neely Carlton, a policy maker in Mississippi with a strong track record in advocating for citizens in recovery. She shows you how you can make your voice heard.
In her personal life and in her professional career, Neely Carlton is on a mission to encourage and empower students to engage with their legislators and be actively involved in public policy.
Carlton grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, in a civically minded family: Her father was a prosecutor, her grandfather a county supervisor, her great-uncle a senator, and her great-aunt the first female judge in the state. After being raised in a family steeped in public service, Carlton followed suit, graduating from law school at 23 and launching her first campaign to serve in the legislature at 24. She won and in 1996 began serving as the youngest person ever elected to the Mississippi State Senate.
“People often ask me why I ran at such a young age, but that’s exactly why I did it: At the time, the Delta needed a voice of hope, and, as a young person and a professional, I had this unique opportunity to serve,” she says. “Young adults have a powerful voice, and they should be encouraged to use it.”
While in office, Carlton worked with various organizations that served populations affected by domestic violence, drug abuse, and mental health. She became aware of the need for public policy to assist those struggling with mental health conditions. One major result of her initiatives was the 72-Hour Hold Bill, which gives the authority to medical professionals to take a person who is a danger to himself or others due to a mental health disorder into custody and place him in a facility designated by the county and approved by the State Department of Mental Health for 72-hour treatment and evaluation.
When her term ended in 2004, Carlton took a step back to focus on raising her children, but still practiced law and sought opportunities to make a difference in the areas of public safety and public health, principally around drug control policy.
Carlton’s knowledge base grew in 2004, when she began working for Gov. Haley Barbour as counsel and legislative liaison. In this capacity, she helped a variety of executive agencies — such as the Bureau of Narcotics, the Departments of Public Safety and Human Services, and Medicaid — to develop public policy strategies. “All of those agencies come into play with drug enforcement, and that gave me a broad exposure to the conversation around mental health and substance use disorders,” she says.
Her next role as chief of staff for the Department of Public Safety gave her more exposure to the issues surrounding mental health and substance abuse, including the statistics on overdoses from the state’s crime lab and coroners. When she became general counsel for the Mississippi State Medical Association in 2009, she used this knowledge to help formulate a plan for a coalition to target the escalating methamphetamine labs in the state and to control internet pharmacies that supplied large quantities of controlled substances to residents via mail order. “The growing drug problem had a huge ripple effect in all the agencies in the state that I had worked with,” she says. “Consider the cost of prosecution, foster care for children, the environmental cleanup that the growing number of meth labs required. The financial impact was overwhelming those agencies; the social impact was overwhelming our state.”