By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Monday, the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force delivered a set of policy recommendations to Gov. Kay Ivey and other state leaders aimed at protecting public safety, holding youthful offenders accountable, controlling costs and improving outcomes for youth, families and communities.
The recommendations to help get troubled children back on track are expected to form the foundation for statutory and budgetary changes that will be considered in the 2018 Legislative Session.
“At its first meeting, I asked the Task Force to examine our state’s data, gather input from Alabamians, and work together to develop a set of recommendations to make our communities safer and put youth back on the right track,” Gov. Ivey said. “These recommendations propose steps for reaching those important goals.”
The Legislature approved, and Gov. Ivey on April 25 signed into law, a resolution sponsored by State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, that created a bipartisan task force to examine how Alabama could improve its juvenile justice system. Alabama Chief Justice Lyn Stuart (R) served on the Task Force, and state Senate President Pro-tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and the Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovio, each appointed a member.
“The Task Force worked diligently to fulfill our charge to find solutions that improve outcomes for our communities and for our youth,” Chief Justice Stuart said. “Our recommendations will strengthen the juvenile justice system by increasing the range of effective community-based options available to judges and juvenile probation officers across the state while focusing judicial resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”
The Task Force met six times to examine Alabama’s juvenile justice system data, review input from hundreds of roundtable participants and assess national research on effective ways to hold youth accountable while reducing their chances of re-offending. The Task Force also learned from states such as Georgia that have successfully expanded evidence-based services and improved public safety while diverting youth who commit lower-level offenses from deeper involvement in the criminal-justice system.
The 20-member Task Force included state leaders from both parties and all three branches of state government representing a wide range of groups, including legislators, judges, district attorneys, sheriff, educators and others. The Task Force conducted months of data analysis, stakeholder outreach and policy assessment before approving recommendations to: Keep youth who commit lower-level offenses from unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system through early interventions and swift, consistent responses; Protect public safety and more effectively allocate taxpayer dollars by focusing system resources on youth who pose the greatest risk to public safety; and Improve public safety outcomes through increased system accountability and reinvestment into evidence-based programs in local communities.
“These data-driven recommendations provide an opportunity to align our system with effective practices and with the values we share as Alabamians. That means less crime, lower costs for taxpayers, and better outcomes for Alabama’s youth and families,” Speaker McCutcheon said.
Sen. Ward co-chaired the Task Force. Ward said that the Task Force met with various stakeholders, including juveniles in the system. Ward said that the last time the legislature looked at this was nine years ago, and since then, society in general has changed on how to deal with juveniles.
“We know there are proven ways to change Alabama’s juvenile justice system for the better,” said Sen. Ward. “Together we can create a better juvenile justice system that shifts young people away from criminal behavior so that they do not move into the adult corrections system.”
Out-of-home beds cost taxpayers as much as $161,694 per youth per year despite research showing poor public-safety returns, especially for youth who commit lower-level offenses.
If adopted and implemented, the Task Force’s recommendations are projected to reduce the state’s out-of-home population of youthful offenders by 50 percent from projected levels by 2023, freeing more than $43 million in funds for reinvestment over five years.
Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, a retired judge who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement, “I know that Alabama’s juvenile justice system needs to be focused on public safety as well as working to ensure the best outcome for the individual juvenile. Locally operated programs that allow juvenile probation officers and other professionals access to the juvenile and the family often provide the best opportunity for this. I look forward to working to make many of the task force recommendations a reality for the children of Alabama.”
Lowndes County Judge Adrian Johnson said that a couple of findings that stood out is that juvenile filings have decreased over the years, but the placing of juveniles in placement out of home has not decreased. Through the data, they learned that two thirds of the juveniles in detention were there for misdemeanors. Research shows that out-of-home detentions have a poor outcome and cost the state as much as $161,000 a year. Johnson said that the state can have better outcomes and save money by dealing with children in the community rather than through incarceration.
Judge Johnson said that the recommendations is based on reforms that have been implemented in Kansas and Georgia. Decreased recidivism is one of the goals of the reforms as well as cost savings.
“There are better ways to do it,” Sen. Ward said. “I think we will have both budgetary and legislation coming in the upcoming session which could lead to savings of up to $34 million.” Ward said that lack of dealing with juveniles properly contributes to adult recidivism.
Johnson said that he was surprised to find out how many of the children were there for non-violent offenses. “We have to do a better job.”
The Task Force membership included: Sen. Cam Ward, 14th District (co-chair); Rep. Jim Hill, 50th District (co-chair); Judge Bob Bailey, 15th Judicial Circuit; Daryl Bailey, District Attorney, Montgomery County; Lynn Beshear, Commissioner, Department of Mental Health; Gar Blume, Defense Attorney, Blume & Blume Attorneys at Law, PC; William Califf, designee of Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh; Derrick Cunningham, Sheriff, Montgomery County; Christy Cain deGraffenried, Executive Director, Alabama Children First; Rep. Matt Fridy, 73rd District; Sen. Vivian Figures, 33rd District; Judge Adrian Johnson, 2nd Judicial Circuit; Steven Lafreniere, Executive Director, Department of Youth Services; Jim Loop, Deputy Director, Department of Human Resources; Cary McMillan, Director, Family Court Division, Administrative Office of Courts; Judge David Money, Henry County Commissioner, designee of Association of County Commissions of Alabama; Chief Justice Lyn Stuart, Alabama Supreme Court; Dr. Kay Atchinson Warfield, Education Administrator, Alabama State Department of Education; Andrew Westcott, designee of House Speaker Mac McCutcheon; and Dave White, designee of Gov. Kay Ivey
The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice provided technical assistance to the Task Force at the invitation of Alabama leadership.
The goals of the task force are to: promote public safety and hold juvenile offenders accountable; control taxpayer costs and improve outcomes for youth, families and communities in Alabama.