A Senate committee will consider legislation Wednesday aimed at creating better outcomes for youth in Alabama’s juvenile justice system by reducing the number of youth placed in state detention for low-level offenses.
The bill — sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster — aims to keep low-level offenders at home instead of in state facilities, but similar bills have failed in the Legislature in previous sessions.
The House version of the bill carried by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, a former juvenile court judge, has already passed out of committee in the lower chamber of the Legislature. Ward says the Senate version of the bill is likely to be substituted for Hill’s version in committee Wednesday or on the floor.
The legislation would expand pre-court diversion programs across the state for youth who have a limited court history and are accused of less serious offenses. It would also focus state resources in the Department of Youth Services on offenders who are accused of more serious offenses and have a more extensive court history.
Sponsors of the bill say it would reduce the state’s custody population by 21 percent in four years, freeing up more than $26 million over the next five years.
The savings would be reinvested into evidence-based community services aimed at reducing the recidivism rate among youthful offenders by providing for intervention while they are still at home.
“By housing fewer non-violent juveniles in jail, you can save up a great deal of money that you can invest back into reinvestment programs for juvenile justice,” Ward said. “You use that money to reinvest that money back into drug treatment programs, rehabilitation programs for these juvenile offenders.”
Supporters of the bill, including Ward, say the legislation is needed to keep youth offenders from returning to state prisons as adults.
“Study after study has shown that the less you put a teenager, a kid, in jail, the less likely they are to go to prison long term as an adult,” Ward said.
The legislation comes as lawmakers are grappling with a Department of Justice report that found the state’s prisons to be in potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The report found that overcrowding in the state’s prisons contributed to poor enforcement and inmate-on-inmate violence
“If you lock up a teenager in jail, the chance of them going to prison long term greatly jumps,” Ward said. “There is a huge likelihood of them ending up in our adult system eventually, too. And oftentimes, the rehabilitation aspect is all that is needed. An addiction, mental health — those are big issues for juveniles that often go undetected because there are no rehabilitation programs out there.”
The legislation would not reduce any sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping, robbery or other serious offenses, and it doesn’t adjust current law as it relates to the most serious offenders being tried as adults.
“You’re not going after the violent offenders,” Ward said. “What you’re trying is you free up resources. Instead of dumping them into jail, you use those resources to get those kids back on track before they become a serious adult offender.”
Counties would be relieved of the cost of paying for detention of committed youth awaiting placement in a state program, and it requires that schools work with youth and families to address truancy before those issues are referred to a court.
Under the law — should it pass the Legislature and be signed by the governor — judges would have more discretion to determine whether sex offender registration is appropriate for certain low-level offenders.
And a Juvenile Justice Oversight Committee would be created to oversee implementation of these reforms and ensure that money saved is appropriately reinvested into local community evidence-based programs.
The legislation is the result of a Juvenile Justice Task Force created by legislation sponsored by Ward. The task force issued a report in 2017 that called for keeping lower-level youth offenders from involvement in the justice system through early, consistent interventions.
Ward said he and Hill tried to work in feedback from juvenile judges, counties, DYS, juvenile probation officers and others who had issues with the legislation in previous years.