The Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force, with technical assistance from the Pew Charitable Trust, surveyed Alabama law and considered data-driven and evidence-based reforms to the juvenile justice system. Its final report contains a number of recommendations that, if enacted, would represent progress for Alabama and its most vulnerable children. For instance, the Task Force recommends ending fines and fees in the juvenile justice system, restricting out-of-home placement, and preventing unnecessary or inappropriate arrests of children from K-12 public schools.
Unfortunately, because it does not recommend ending the practice of charging children as adults, the Task Force fell short of its goals of protecting public safety, containing costs and improving outcomes for children, families and communities.
Children Tried as Adults
The Task Force’s decision not to recommend a full repeal of Alabama’s “direct file” statute is disappointing.
The statute pushes children into adult courts based on a prosecutor’s choice rather than judicial oversight. It undermines the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile justice system and serves no public interest. Recognizing this, some states have repealed their direct file statutes, giving juvenile court judges the discretion to transfer the case to adult court, if appropriate. Unfortunately, the Task Force decided to retain Alabama’s direct file statute, though it limits the eligible charges. Its decision is based on false assumptions, including the myth that children who are sent into adult court under this statute are all inherently violent and irredeemable. The Task Force also chose not to make any change to the transfer statute, the law that allows children as young as age 14 to have their charges transferred to the adult court.
As researchers, courts and child welfare advocates all over the country have recognized, children are different from adults in their mental, social and physical development. The Task Force reviewed research and evidence demonstrating that children who make mistakes can improve their behavior with care and support. But maintaining a system that locks them away with adult offenders has the opposite effect: Children’s safety is endangered, their behavior worsens from exposure to the adult system, and they receive none of the educational or rehabilitative services they need to become productive citizens upon release. Young people are five times as likely to experience sexual assault – and 36 times as likely to commit suicide – as youth in juvenile facilities.
In Alabama, almost one third of the young people in detention facilities are locked up for misbehaving while on probation – including missing curfew or missing an office visit –not because they committed a new crime. The Task Force could have recommended eliminating the practice of detaining children for violating the terms of their probation and saved about $43 million over five years. Data shows that re-offense rates are higher for youth who face a court complaint for a first offense, and that money could be reinvested in community-based programming that would keep children with their families and foster lower recidivism. Instead, the Task Force decided to forego $9 million in savings by agreeing that “substantive” technical violations of probation can still land children in secured custody.
Fines & Fees
Currently, juvenile courts in Alabama can charge fines and fees to children, even though they have little or no income. Punishing children with fines and fees is incompatible with the juvenile justice system’s goal of rehabilitation and ensnares children from poor families in the justice system. When children are unable to pay, their probation can be lengthened or they can serve time in detention or jail. This practice actually increases the likelihood of re-offense. We commend the Task Force’s recommendations that the Legislature eliminate juvenile fines and fees and limit restitution. We ask that the Legislature protect Alabama’s children by eliminating current collection practices that punish and destabilize families rather than help rehabilitation, including charging money to parents and using arrests to coerce payment.
School to Prison Pipeline
Law enforcement should not handle student misbehavior that can be appropriately addressed by educators. Every day, about 18 students are arrested or referred to law enforcement from Alabama’s K-12 public schools. With harsh responses to misbehavior that disproportionately impact students of color, some Alabama schools are pipelines to prisons instead of avenues to careers or higher education.
To address this problem, the Task Force recommended investing in school- and community-based programs for youth and their families, and in evidence-based early intervention prior to court referral. The Task Force also recommended clear protocols for collaboration between local law enforcement and school districts to reduce justice system referrals. These are important first steps to ending the school to prison pipeline in Alabama, but the Task Force could have gone further in its recommendations by ensuring that all system stakeholders have adequate resources and training to effectively carry out these interventions and that checks are in place to hold all key participants accountable for their role in implementing reforms.
Although the Task Force has gotten off to a good start in making recommendations for juvenile justice system reform, the legislature should re-examine the data and seek additional opportunities to stand up for Alabama youth.