Recommended juvenile justice reforms could transform Alabama


Whenever I hear an Alabama politician announce another task force, my soul dies a little. Typically, these task forces are designed to help politicians who need credit for doing something without actually changing anything. The Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force (AJJTF), however, looks like it has proposed a few great ideas–and done so in a timely fashion. It’s now up to the Alabama Legislature to turn those recommendations into reality.

Senate Joint Resolution 78 established the AJJTF in April of 2017. It’s clear task is to review the state’s juvenile justice system and develop evidence-based policy recommendations for the legislature. The AJJTF has done just that in less than a year’s time.

I’ve been privileged to work on criminal justice policies with my colleagues at the R Street Institute. Over the last several years, the political right and left have found real common ground on justice reform issue. The recommendations from the AJJTF aren’t an exception to that trend. They’re based on national research, information from state juvenile probation officers (JPOs), roundtables throughout the state and input from hundreds of people who want to improve our juvenile justice system.

Here are a couple of big picture takeaways:

  • Alabama needs to keep lower-level youthful offenders out of the juvenile justice system and reserve out-of-home detention for dangerous offenders.

In many instances, neither the ends of justice nor the people of Alabama are served by separating minors from their families and putting them into detention. Such a response ought to be reserved for the most serious offenders. Alabama must develop consistent, clear, evidence-based criteria for removing a child from his or her home that limits the practice to the most egregious cases.

At the same time, we need consistent accountability for all juveniles who break the law. Empowering judges and JPOs with community-based alternatives will help move lower-level youth offenders in a more productive direction.

  • The state must allocate resources to protect the public in a fiscally responsible manner.

Keeping juveniles in a detention facility is extremely expensive in terms of direct costs. According to the AJJTF’s report, “out-of-home placement for committed youth costs the state up to $161,694 per youth per year.”

The economic loss from recidivism, lost future earnings, and increased dependency on government services is far greater. A 2014 report by the Justice Policy Institute pegs the national cost of confining youthful offenders at “an additional $8 billion to $21 billion each year.”

The state must also reconsider raising revenue from youthful offenders themselves. While youthful offenders need to fairly compensate their victims for any economic loss imposed, we don’t need to saddle them with state-imposed fines, fees, and other costs that only serve to create more potential liability for them.

  • Alabama must increase transparency, enhance data collection, and invest in evidence-based programs in our communities.
This is the part nobody likes to talk about, but we need to make reasonable investments now to improve outcomes in the future. None of this is easy, but JPOs and other personnel in the juvenile justice system need the resources to do what works. That’s really all that “evidence-based” means. The state collects information, we find out what works best, and then help kids heading down the wrong path while strengthening and protecting our communities.

In all, the AJJTF has 48 policy recommendations that the legislature and governor ought to consider seriously. We should have thorough discussions about them, work them through the process and radically modify our juvenile justice system.

This is as righteous a political cause as we’re going to find, and it’s fiscally prudent. We’re moving away from a “big government” approach to juvenile justice towards something that can work for both victims of crimes and offenders with their whole lives ahead of them. Here’s a chance for Alabama to make some real changes that will have an incredible impact on our future.

Along with Alabama Senate and House leadership, Governor Kay Ivey, state Senator Cam Ward, and Chief Justice Lyn Stuart deserve a lot of credit for moving these ideas forward. Hopefully the Alabama Legislature will succeed in building on those efforts this session.


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