Governor Bob Riley signed into law a bill that will send many troubled teens to community programs instead of locking them up in detention centers where they often learn bad habits that get them into worse trouble. The new law stops juvenile judges from sending children who have committed non-violent offenses to the Department of Youth Services. Last year 77% of DYS admissions were low-risk juveniles with non-violent offenses like running away and being truant from school, according to the Alabama Youth Justice Coalition. Children are being incarcerated who have never before committed a crime. Many of the first offenses are drug-related and don’t involve any violent act. Time in DYS gives these young offenders the wrong kind of training. Keeping them out of the system makes good sense. We don’t need that kind of training for our young people who have made a mistake.
The law also consolidates the state’s juvenile laws by putting them into an organized code. Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who has worked on the bill for the last four years, believes it also ensures compliance with all federal regulations for government funding for abused and other at-risk children. Concerning the importance of this bill, the Chief Justice observed:
It had to be done. This is the most important piece of legislation that has passed during my professional career impacting the lives of children.
Only a handful of counties currently have the community programs in place for judges to use as an alternative to DYS. Under the new law, counties have 18 months to develop the programs, after which judges will be prohibited from locking up non-violent offenders. The change is expected to save the state millions each year by moving youngsters from expensive institutional beds into nonresidential treatment programs that are usually cheaper.
A percentage of the money that would have been spent to institutionalize the teens will instead go toward their treatment in the community-based programs. A child’s average DYS stay in 2007 was 144 days, with the state paying a daily average of $134 per child. Governor Riley, who gave his full support to the bill, believes it will help make a safer Alabama. Judicial officials and juvenile advocates will be getting together in the fall to discuss different strategies for the programs. Senator Myron Penn was instrumental in guiding the bill through the State Senate. The real credit for making the bill-signing a reality, however, goes to Chief Justice Cobb and the groups that have worked tirelessly to pass this legislation.
Source: Associated Press
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