MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers this session will consider an overhaul of the state's juvenile justice system, which advocates contend locks up too many kids for low-level offenses.
The bill, which seeks an emphasis on intervention and to limit which juvenile offenders get sent to lock-up or moved to adult court, is expected to get a joint hearing by the House and Senate judiciary committees later this month.
"We need to be careful about sending kids into lock-up facilities. These are juveniles. These are people who are generally anywhere from 13 to 16," said state Republican Rep. Jim Hill, a former juvenile judge, and a sponsor of the bill. Hill said kids are often sent to lock-up facilities for a string of relatively low-level offenses because there is not another alternative.
"Too many of our counties, and this is especially true in our rural counties, simply don't have the programs and the resources that they really need to work with those children at a local level as opposed to sending those children into a lock-up facility," Hill said.
Sharon McClendon Price of Guntersville said her 15-year-old daughter had "issues with defiance and truancy, things of the nature." After police found her at a house where there were drugs, Price agreed to put her on probation, in the hopes of getting her help.
Probation violations for failed drug tests, in which she tested positive for marijuana, and skipping school, landed her in lock-up in September: first at a detention facility and then a residential facility, she said. She is still there.
"Instead of finding out what was going on, they decided to lock her up," Price said.
The legislation is the result of recommendations from the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force, which with assistance from The Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project analyzed juvenile justice data from the state.
According to the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force, nearly two-thirds of referrals to Department of Youth Services' custody in 2016 were for children who didn't commit a felony. They were sent there for probation violations, misdemeanor offenses. Of the 1,280 total referrals that year to state custody, nearly two-thirds are for non-felonies such as probation violations, theft and misdemeanors, according to the task force's report.
The bill would require a formal risk and needs assessment for juvenile offender, limits the offenses that subject a child to placement with the Department of Youth Services and limits punishment for probation violations to briefer detention stays.
Alabama allows children as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Teens 16 and older are currently automatically placed in the adult system if they are charged with capital offenses, class A felonies and other crimes, such as an assault on a teacher or a school principal with a "dangerous instrument."
The bill would limit which cases automatically get moved to adult court to capital offenses, murder, rape with a deadly weapon and robbery with a deadly weapon.
State prisons in October held one 15-year-old, three 16-year-olds and eleven 17-year-olds, according to statistics from the Department of Corrections.
District attorneys oppose that provision of the bill, arguing the violent older teens should be in the adult system.
"We do not want these dangerous violent offenders incarcerated with non-violent property offenders. That's what will happen. If we don't make some changes," said Barry Matson of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.
The bill's sponsors, Hill and Ward, emphasize the bill is a work in progress.
"We've got a lot of changes coming," Ward, R-Alabaster said.
"We want a smart system. We don't want a juvenile offender to become a lifelong burden on the state," Ward said.
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