With the approach of Travis Montgomery’s legal proceedings, Alabama is increasingly on my mind.
Rethink justice system for youthful offenders
by the Editorial Board, The Montgomery Advertiser
March 10, 2016
The Alabama Legislature has the chance this year to significantly reform the state’s criminal justice system for youthful offenders.
Currently, children as young as 14 can be charged as adults, even for nonviolent crimes such as theft. As many as 1,000 are charged as adults each year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Those ages 14 to 17 can be put in the adult system by a transfer order from a juvenile court judge for any crime. Those ages 16 and 17 are automatically charged as adults for some crimes, in a process called direct filing.
It’s a harsh, inhumane and costly system that throws children in with hardened criminals where they are frequently subjected to sexual and physical assault.
A dearth of educational and rehabilitative services for youth in adult prisons increases the chances they’ll fail to turn their lives around once their sentences are up.
Studies have shown children housed in adult prisons are much more likely to re-offend than those kept in juvenile facilities.
That revolving door burdens taxpayers and communities, who pick up the tab for repeated prison sentences. Lives are wasted and everyone loses.
A bill filed by state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, seeks to reduce the number of children who end up incarcerated in adult prisons, with two main reforms.
Under Senate Bill 324, no 16- or 17-year-old child would be direct filed to the adult system. Juvenile court justices would instead make a determination on their placement, weighing factors such as the best interest of the child and community.
That makes sense because juvenile court judges are “in the best position to determine if the juvenile system can provide resources to rehabilitate the child,” says Ebony Howard, managing attorney at the SPLC, which backs the bill.
Just as important, Figures’ bill would prohibit a child offender from being housed in adult jails, except for up to six hours while his or her case is being processed.
Mingled in jails with adult criminals, the minors are easy prey for abuse and assault, all at a pre-trial level before they’ve even been found guilty of a crime, according to Howard.
Plus they receive no educational services or opportunities to lessen the possibility they’ll commit further crimes.
Existing state laws on handling child offenders are a recipe for cruelty and recidivism.
Alabama’s failing prison system is rife with entrenched problems, from overcrowding to abuse by guards and inmate violence. No place, in short for children.
Lawmakers should approve Figures’ bill as one step to keep as many children as possible from entering the adult justice system.
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