News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


State must do more to reduce juvenile recidivism

Seven out of 10 youths released from Alabama juvenile detention facilities return to state custody within two years.

And nearly half return more than once.

The figures were released last week by the Children First Foundation and VOICES for Alabama's Children from a study of 5,000 juveniles released in 2001 and 2002. The Center for Demographic and Cultural Research at Auburn University at Montgomery performed the study.

The statistics are alarming.

State Department of Youth Services Chief Walter Wood conceded that the study "appears to point out the areas of the juvenile justice system which can certainly use improvement: Far too many youth return to state care."

Yet the troubled DYS refuses to allow the Children First Foundation — a child-advocacy organization founded by Criminal Appeals Court Judge Sue Bell Cobb — to perform a joint review of the state program, saying the department's spending and programs are held accountable through legislative budget committees and the appropriation process.

State Rep. Locy Baker, D-Abbeville, sits on both the House Government Finance and Appropriations Committee and the DYS board of directors. As Children First Foundation board Chairman Graham Champion said, "When you have DYS reviewing its own programs, it's like a fox guarding the hen house."

"You've got to wonder what it is that they don't want people to know," Judge Cobb said.

Troubled youths must be held accountable for their actions and DYS cannot be expected to rehabilitate all youthful offenders. But the 70 percent recidivism rate is more than a warning of the state agency's lack of success. It is the elephant in the room that DYS officials would prefer we all ignore.

And the problem will spill over into the state prison system as those youths come of age.

Refusing to cooperate with Children First to review its operations is foolish. DYS should welcome a review of its practices. It would do well to incorporate community-based programs like those System of Services has successfully implemented in Morgan County. Those programs are aimed at reaching children — and their families — before the youths find trouble.

System of Services offers a wealth of programs including substance abuse, counseling, education, parenting, community service, truancy prevention and monitoring via a global positioning system. It also partners with other community agencies that offer programs targeting the individual child's needs. In effect, it offers a tailor-made program to prevent juvenile delinquency. The programs allow youths to serve their "sentence" close to home in a caring, nurturing, educational environment.

That makes much more sense than locking up at-risk children in the same facility with hardened delinquents and hoping that they come out OK.

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