By KIM CHANDLER and MALLORY MOENCH, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers are one step closer to overhauling the state’s juvenile justice system after the House passed a bill aimed at keeping low-level offenders out of detention. Thursday’s vote was 69-20 after more than three hours of heated debate and multiple amendments.
The bill proposed by Rep. Jim Hill, a Republican and former juvenile judge, aims to keep low-level offenders at home instead of in lock-up facilities. It would limit the number of offenses that put juveniles into Department of Youth Services (DYS) custody and reduce the punishment for probation violations to briefer detention stays. It would also require a formal risk and needs assessment that allows judges and juvenile probation officers to divert children from detention.
The bill would re-invest $35 million in community-based programs on top of $1 million for juvenile justice reform approved in next year’s general fund budget.
“There is no doubt in my mind that placing children in out-of-home facilities should be your very last option. The only way it can be the last option is if you locally have another one,” Hill said. “The purpose of this bill is to deflect kids from DYS, which is expensive, and to reinvest those dollars in local programs so that juveniles can be provided the service in a local environment.”
The bill is based on recommendations made by the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force in December 2017. Nearly two-thirds of the children in DYS custody in 2016 didn’t commit a felony, according to the task force’s report. They were sent there for probation violations and misdemeanor offenses.
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.
A stream of lawmakers criticized and questioned the 80-page bill during debate.
Rep. John Knight, a Democrat, said he agreed with the intent of the bill but worried there wasn’t enough money to sustain it.
Rep. Elaine Beech, a Democrat, said the legislation is an “unfunded mandate” and would overburden juvenile probation officers in her rural district who are already stretched.
DYS did not response to request for comment about whether the bill would strain officers.
Georgia implemented a similar law in 2013 that put only the most serious and violent young offenders in custody and diverted those with misdemeanors into community-based programs. Since 2013, yearly juvenile commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice have decreased by 46 percent, according to the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.
The bill moves for a final vote to the Senate, where similar legislation was introduced this year but hasn’t yet been approved by committee. Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican sponsor and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would push Wednesday’s committee meeting to Tuesday to get the bill on the floor for a vote on Thursday. The legislation faces a tight deadline before the session finishes at the end of March.