By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
Significant changes are likely coming to Alabama’s Juvenile Justice System.
A 20-member task force made up of lawmakers, judges, youth services employees and law enforcement officials spent the last six months reviewing current practices and examining the most successful programs and recommendations from experts across the country.
On Monday, the panel released its findings, noting a need for dramatic changes that will drastically cut the amount of state tax dollars spent on juvenile programs and bring better results.
“There needs to be a lot more intelligent approach to how we handle offenders instead of just locking everybody up,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, who co-chaired the task force. “We think the changes we’ve suggested will produce more desirable results for the kids in these programs and save the state a significant amount of money along the way.”
The changes proposed by the task force will now be written as legislation to be approved by lawmakers when the Legislature convenes in January.
The most significant change is the most obvious: low-level offenders whose crimes pose no serious threat of violence to the community will not be removed from their homes, but will instead be treated by county-run programs. The move is predicted to save the state approximately $34 million annually and cut the number of juvenile offenders in state-run facilities in half.
The math is easy to understand. In the Department of Youth Services, juveniles with the lowest-level offenses make up the largest portion of the juvenile justice population. At the same time, housing those non-violent offenders in state-run facilities costs taxpayers more than $161,000 per year for each person.
“The data shows us that it’s a costly and ineffective way to do this,” Ward said.
A significant portion of the money saved would go towards funding the county programs, which allow the offenders to stay in their homes and receive focused treatment and supervision. It’s a system that would mirror a successful program in Georgia.
“They have seen significant results and there’s no question it works,” said Lowndes County District Court Judge Adrian Johnson, who served on the panel.
Johnson also noted that Georgia (159) has more than twice the number of counties as Alabama (67). “If they can fund it, I feel confident that we can as well,” he said.
The task force’s recommendations were well received by state lawmakers.
“These data-driven recommendations provide an opportunity to align our system with effective practices and with the values we share as Alabamians,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said. “That means less crime, lower costs for taxpayers, and better outcomes for Alabama’s youth and families.”