Everyone knows that young people are apt to make mistakes, which is why the juvenile justice system often seeks to divert young offenders into rehabilitation programs that can help them correct bad behavior and avoid detention.

But in Alabama, there are 15 counties that lack any youth diversion programs. Eligible youths in these mostly rural counties who are offered diversion must instead travel to neighboring counties.

Diversion programs intervene in the lives of young people who have shown some risky behavior but have not yet become severely delinquent in the eyes of the juvenile justice system. Interrupting bad behavior like minor, nonviolent offenses ultimately aids in decreasing recidivism and promoting community safety. Diversion programs serve the important purpose of keeping young people out of detention facilities and are particularly beneficial when they located within a young person’s own community.

It is clear that young people who receive services and maintain support systems near home and in their neighborhoods see net-positive lifetime results. Some states have made it policy to maintain as much physical proximity as possible to a young person’s community once they are detained.

For example, “Close to Home” is a juvenile-justice-reform initiativedesigned to keep detained young people close to their families and communities. Originated in New York in 2012, the state has in the years since seen a 53 percent decline in youth arrests, a 35 percent decline in youth detention and a 68 percent decline in the number of kids placed in detention facilities.

The initiative tangibly ensures youth remain connected to their school, successfully reunifies families after youth detention and creates additional avenues to connect young people to skill-building and employment opportunities. By providing young people with positive alternatives to simply being “locked away” and by maintaining connection with the normalcy of “home,” the “Close to Home” reform initiative has been able to cultivate outstanding results.

Other states also are in discussions about how best to implement similar initiatives. In Philadelphia, the Juvenile Law Center has launched a coalition effort titled “Safely Home Philly,” whose goal is to return young people from large institutional placements that often are great distances from their families and communities.

Alabama is on the precipice of a unique opportunity. By keeping young people close to home and rectifying the need for additional youth diversion programs across the state, Alabama can be on the forefront of positive and effective juvenile justice reform efforts.

One District Court judge in Lowndes County has seen the effects firsthand of how a county without a youth diversion program could jeopardize young people’s long-term rehabilitative success. Judge Adrian Johnson believes placing rehabilitative diversion programs in rural counties will allow young people to stay closer to home, noting that “studies have indicated that that child has a much better chance of success if we can keep that child in the community.”

When local diversion programs aren’t accessible, it makes finding and continuing treatment programs difficult. By maintaining the connection to their community, a young person can come to understand how their bad behavior directly affects those around them and can be encouraged to make better personal decisions as part of their civic and familial duties.

Judge Johnson points out “the goal is, of course, to correct the behavior not only of the juvenile but to ensure that that family has the tools that it needs to succeed.” The best way for Alabama to achieve the goals of juvenile rehabilitation, family stability and community safety is to fund youth diversion programs in the 15 counties that currently don’t have them.

During its 2018 session, the state Legislature appropriated the Department of Youth Services the same amount as it had in 2017, while the Department of Corrections got a $56 million increase. Perhaps lawmakers could shift their fiscal priorities toward rehabilitating juveniles rather than simply incarcerating and reincarcerating them as adults

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