The American juvenile justice system was founded on and guided by the principles of reform and rehabilitation; over 100 years ago, the first juvenile court in the United States was created to improve a criminal justice system which, at the time, did not have a way of helping wayward youth. However, before a string of juvenile delinquency cases in the 1960s, in particular the 1967 In re Gault case, children did not share the same legal rights or due process as adults and were often placed in adult prisons. In re Gault shaped the framework of the juvenile justice system by establishing the same rights as adults for juveniles (State Profiles: Alabama). The juvenile justice system as we know it today is very different from the adult system. The goal for the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, while the goal for the criminal justice system is punishment. In the state of Alabama, many policies currently in place within the juvenile justice system often negatively impact the youth that system is meant to help reform. Overuse of the correctional system and misuse of funds and resources are issues that the state juvenile justice system faces. Placing one juvenile delinquent in a detention facility or out-of-home placement can cost the state up to $160,000 (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency); in 2015, 849 youths were being held in detention centers (State-by-State Data). That’s approximately $135,840,000 for that year alone. In Alabama, despite juvenile complaints declining, the number of detained youths has increased by 6 percent since 2012. It was also found that low-level misdemeanors, such as shoplifting or truancy, were frequently given the most severe responses (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). Though some progress is being made, the Alabama juvenile justice system has a number of inefficient and ineffective policies which can have a harmful effect on the juveniles within it.
In the 19th century, the United States of America began to establish the juvenile justice system as we know it. In Alabama, the same year as In re Gault, Alabama Governor Wallace created a youth committee with the goal of preventing juvenile delinquency, which was eventually followed up by the addition of the Alabama Department of Youth Services, or DYS. This banned non-licensed facilities in state and allowed the construction of state-regulated and licensed facilities. In 1974, Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act which separated juveniles from adults and banned the institutionalization of youth for offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults (Barnes). Alabama then enacted the Alabama Juvenile Justice Act in 1975, to aid the goal of rehabilitation, protection and care of youth within the court while also maintaining the safety and protection of the public (US, Alabama Admin. Office of Courts). This bill has gone through a number of reforms, notably in 2003, 2008 and, most recently, in 2018.
The Alabama juvenile justice system is a work in progress. As it currently stands, resources are not being used efficiently and certain policies are not only ineffective but harmful to the youths they are meant to help. In December of 2017, the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force was put together to review the state juvenile justice system. According to the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force Final Report, their findings discovered that juvenile complaints have shrunk but not out-of-home placement, most of the youths in the system are low-level youths, the length of supervision on probation has doubled regardless of offense, and there is a lack of resources to meet the needs of kids in several areas. The report states that Alabama has seen an increase in the usage of out-of-home placement, or removing youths from their homes and putting them in the DYS-funded facilities. The number of juvenile complaints has gone down 27 percent since 2012, but detained youth has increased by 6 percent. Studies reviewed by the Task Force found that out-of-home placements increase the likelihood of recidivism, and overall do not improve results for the youths in the system. Racial disparities were also found while examining the increase in detention, which are maintained when compared to complaints and out-of-home placements for juveniles who committed misdemeanors. As stated in the Final Report, A larger share of black youth are placed in detention, out-of-home diversion, and DYS custody than their share of the overall youth population[they] also receive a disproportionately high share of dispositions to DYS custody when compared to their share of initial complaints. The juvenile courts of Alabama have the authority to place any juvenile out of home for virtually any offense; nearly 2/3 of detained juveniles were committed for non-felonies and technical violations (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). The most severe punishments and system responses are dealt to youths who committed low-level crimes and misdemeanors. Research has shown that the majority of youth are not on the path to become adult criminals, and that they can behaviorally improve with the proper support and care (AL Juvenile Justice Task Force Report Is Progress). The high detention and incarceration rates in Alabama lead to a higher risk of future delinquent behavior without rehabilitation; placing non-violent juveniles with violent juvenile offenders like this increases the chances of recidivism and committing a violent crime later on in life (Bonds). The Final Report revealed that the largest amount of juvenile complaints was found to be truancy, and the majority of the cases in the system are misdemeanor offenses. In 2016, 71 percent of these complaints were low-level misdemeanors. Interestingly, as stated in the report, the amount of truancy complaints has nearly doubled over the last ten years to more than 30 percent, despite ALSDE data showing that the truancy rate has not increased. Many in the juvenile justice system in Alabama are low-level offenders whose offenses include actions such as theft, truancy or getting into fights at school.
The length of probation supervision in Alabama has increased by more than double the median length since 2009. Despite research indicating that the odds of revocation and additional involvement with the juvenile justice system are higher with longer supervision terms, the median length of probation dispositions rose for all types, including an increase of 111% for misdemeanants (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). Strict probation conditions see a relatively high number of juveniles who remain under probation supervision for a long time due to minor violations for things such as fines and court fees. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 24.3 percent of Alabama’s juvenile population in 2016 were living in poverty (Juvenile Justice State Profile). As stated in the Task Force’s Final Report, in Alabama court fines and fees are becoming more common, which can lead to higher risk of recommitting offenses in the future, further time in the justice system, and aggravate racial disparities. This is particularly true for juveniles from poor families. This is incompatible with the juvenile justice system’s goal of rehabilitation, and when these children cannot pay their financial obligations, their probation can be lengthened, or they can be placed in a detention facility (AL Juvenile Justice Task Force Report Is Progress). On average, the collection rates of these fees are low”5 percent of court costs and 15 percent of restitution”yet more than three quarters of Juvenile Probation Officers, or JPOs, reported that these financial obligations had to be payed before the juveniles could be discharged from probation. Technical violations are also a big factor in the lengthening of probation times; one juvenile in an out-of-home diversion program reported that she was meant to get off her probation earlier, but she was sent home for wearing inappropriate clothing, and her JPO gave her three more months (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). The Final Report reveals that Alabama does not have statewide standards for both the conditions and length of probation supervision nor does it have a statutory limit or statewide guidance on the amount of financial obligations by the court, aside from a 250$ limit for disposition fines.
In many places within Alabama, particularly rural areas, resources are being used inefficiently or are unavailable to judges JPOs and district attorneys which can aid the process of rehabilitating and reforming juveniles as well as the juvenile justice system. Despite Alabama’s high usage of out-of-placement programs, studies have found that community-based programs modeled to diminish recidivism create better outcomes in terms of public safety and care for juveniles (Lowenkamp). In the Final Report, two thirds of JPO respondents reported that there were not enough resources to meet the needs of the juveniles under their care. Youth within the Alabama juvenile justice system also voiced the need for effective in-home interventions, such as family therapy. High quality community-based services for probational juveniles are chiefly unavailable in Alabama, and those that are available are not required to be modeled to lower the rate of reoffences nor are they monitored for quality, the Task Force reported on their Final Report. On top of the lack of programs, obstacles for juveniles receiving community-based services include extensive wait lists, transportation blocks, and high costs for families. A significant amount of state and county spending in Alabama is used for out-of-home placement programs which are proven to fail to reduce the number of reoffences. In fact, they cost up to 91 times more than probation. Exacerbating this is the fact that Alabama’s juvenile justice system does not have oversight nor culpability; the state does not keep track of recidivism in either the juvenile justice system nor the criminal justice system. Thus there is little accountability for the state resources that go into out-of-home programs and little to ensure system oversight and improved outcomes (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). In conclusion, resources are not being monitored or used efficiently, and thus are not giving the juveniles within the system the proper care they require.
Fortunately, there are reforms being supported in the Alabama government, though they are still limited and mostly have yet to be enacted. The Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force came up with a series of recommendations which, if passed, could address a number of issues their investigation discovered, and this year a Juvenile Justice Bill was passed by lawmakers. The Task Force has recommended the expansion of effective pre-court responses to prevent deeper juvenile justice system involvement and catch lower-level juveniles early, and to focus the costly use of detention or out-of-home placements on higher risk juveniles. The Task Force also recommended the limitation of restitution to material loss and to remove court costs for low-level youth. It also recommended increased training as well as the development of an improved system of accountability (US, Alabama Legislative Services Agency). The bill proposed in March is aimed at keeping low-level juveniles out of detention facilities and at home by limiting the number of offenses that puts juveniles into DYS custody, as well as reduce the time in detention that probation violations cause (Chandler). While these are substantial and necessary steps being taken, the state of Alabama’s juvenile justice system still has a number of areas to address. The main goal of the juvenile justice system, nationwide, is the rehabilitation of the children within it. Alabama is one of few states that have a direct file statute which puts juveniles into adult courts by the choice of a prosecutor and not judicial oversight. There is also the transfer statute, which allows juveniles from 14 to 17 years old to be transferred to the adult courts (AL Juvenile Justice Task Force Report Is Progress). Once a youth is tried in the adult courts, Alabama law states that the juvenile court’s jurisdiction over that youth’s future delinquent or criminal acts is finished and the youth will henceforth always be tried as an adult regardless of age (State Profiles: Alabama). These laws conflict with the stated goal of reformation that is the foundation of the juvenile justice system. Children are not as physically, socially and mentally developed as adults, and having a system that detains kids with adult offenders is destructive to the youth and increases their chances of committing more crimes later in life. As stated by the Southern Poverty Law Center in an article titled, Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force is Progress, but More Needed, 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. Alabama is beginning to see reformation of its juvenile justice system but there is still a ways to go.*
Concurring with the juvenile justice system’s aim of rehabilitation, I believe a trauma-informed care model for community programs is a necessity. Juveniles in the juvenile justice system are increasingly likely to have mental health issues as opposed to those in the general population (Hoeve). Dr. Julian Ford, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry and law at the University of Connecticut, states as much as two thirds of teenagers have experienced some type of trauma, but that number increases to nearly 100 percent for teenagers living in conditions of violence, poverty, neglect, racism or discrimination based on gender, gender identity or disability. In the juvenile justice system, juveniles have frequently experienced polyvictimization, being victimized multiple times, as well as other childhood stressors such as familial separation or dysfunction. Up to 65-75 percent of youths within the system require care to recover from PTSD as well as a range of related issues which include eating disorders, exploitation, substance abuse, sexual abuse, dissociative, anxiety, etc. There is evidence that mental health issues could increase the likelihood of reoffences, and that substance abuse, behavioral issues, anxiety and stress are linked with recidivism (Hoeve). As opposed to practices which label and treat traumatized juveniles as irredeemable or mentally deformed, a trauma-informed care model provides evidence-based treatment designed to aid the healing process and help juveniles overcome traumatic stress reactions (Ford). The National Child Traumatic Stress Network outlined 8 essential element of a trauma-informed juvenile justice system, which includes trauma informed policies and procedures, identification/screening of youth who have been traumatized, clinical assessment and intervention for traumatized youth, trauma-informed programming, education of staff and resources, prevention and management of secondary traumatic stress, partnering with youth and families, trauma-informed cross system collaboration and trauma-informed approaches to address disparities and diversity (Essential Elements). The benefits of creating a trauma-informed juvenile justice system not only include potentially substantial long-term economic and social cost savings, but also help juveniles and families better understand trauma and its impact, as well as strengthen the safety net for children who have been traumatized through creating a basis for partnerships between systems which serve and protect children, not just the juvenile justice system but also education and child welfare systems (Trauma Among Youth in the Juvenile Justice System). A trauma-informed model educates people on the effects of trauma and paves the way for juveniles to recover and become functioning and successful citizens, thus bettering the public’s safety and welfare.
The Alabama juvenile justice system is a system with a number of pitfalls in the form of inefficient and harmful policies and procedures. Out-of-home placements have increased, despite research which contests the idea that this is an effective approach. The majority of juveniles within the system have committed low-level offenses which are receiving severe punishments, though this only increases their chances of recidivism and prolongs their involvement in the system. The lengths of probational supervision have increased dramatically regardless of offense, and mainly due to technical violations and financial obligations that cannot be met. There is also a lack of resources and services to properly address the needs of juveniles within the system, and funding is flowing to ineffective out-of-home placement programs. The Juvenile Justice Task Force has given a set of recommendations which could help change these issues, and a bill has recently been voted in that could decrease probational supervision and the number of low-level offenders in detention. However, these are just the beginning stages of a reformation of the Alabama juvenile justice system, and I believe a trauma-informed care model is a necessary implementation to achieve the juvenile justice system’s goal of rehabilitation.