Alabama and Tennessee Juvenile Justice Task Forces Recommend Evidence-Based Reforms and Reinvestment

Posted by Darlene Conroy
January 29, 2018

This month, task forces in both Alabama and Tennessee presented to state leadership reports analyzing their respective states’ juvenile justice systems and proposing recommendations for legislative, administrative and budgetary change.

The task forces in each state have been at work since Spring to understand the current workings of their juvenile justice systems, identify areas for potential improvement, and recommend policy options that allow each state to seek a better return on investment for public safety dollars.  With policy recommendations up for legislative consideration in early 2018, these states are on the front lines of data-driven, evidence-based juvenile justice reform.

The Joint Ad-hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice

In May 2017, government leaders in Tennessee, including Governor Bill Haslam and Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, requested the formation of the Joint Ad-hoc Tennessee Blue Ribbon Task Force on Juvenile Justice.  The Task Force, co-chaired by Speaker Beth Harwell and Majority Leader Mark Norris, was charged with recommending data-driven, research-based juvenile justice policy reforms that protect public safety, effectively hold juvenile offenders accountable, contain taxpayer costs, and improve outcomes for youth, families and communities.  From June to November 2017, Task Force members conducted a thorough review of the state’s juvenile court system and the Department of Children’s Services (DCS)’s juvenile justice services system. They reviewed ample research on the most effective ways to reduce reoffending,  considered policy changes that have succeeded in other states, and gathered statewide stakeholder feedback through roundtable sessions and a questionnaire provided to judges, DCS family service workers, and county probation staff.  The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project and the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice provided technical assistance.

Tennessee’s Task Force found that nearly half of youth in out-of-home placements were adjudicated on misdemeanor offenses, “unruly” (status) offenses, and technical violations; youth are spending longer periods of time in out-of-home placements and on supervision than five years ago; and out-of-home placements cost roughly 27 times more than community supervision and diversion.  The Task Force also found that youth experience inconsistent outcomes across the state.  Factors include a lack of statewide guidance and coordinated information-sharing, as well as reduced access—particularly in rural areas—to effective community-based interventions. 

To address these issues, the task force developed a set of recommendations that would prevent unnecessary system involvement of lower-level youth through early response; protect public safety and contain costs by focusing system resources on the highest-risk youth; and sustain effective practices through oversight and reinvestment in evidence-based services.  The proposed policy changes are projected to reduce the population of youth adjudicated for “unruly or delinquent offenses” in DCS custody by 36 percent by FY 2024 compared to projections absent reform, and allow the state to avert an estimated $36 million in costs over five years that it can reinvest in a continuum of in-home and community-based services. 

Specifically, the Task Force recommends empowering and expanding tools that will allow schools to appropriately respond to behaviors that don't present a risk to school safety; improving communication among school personnel, families, and the courts to reduce referrals based on ineffective communication; and expanding the array of law enforcement tools and resources to effectively respond to student behavior without the courts’ involvement.  It recommends improving communications among school administrators, parents, and students, to appropriately address truancy concerns without court involvement, and expanding the array of law enforcement responses to youth behavior, including explicitly authorizing the use of citation in lieu of arrest for misdemeanors.  Further, it recommends creating a structured tier system that standardizes diversion of lower-level youth from the system while enhancing access to services and support, boosting the use of informal adjustment, and increasing funding streams for pre-court, early interventions.  It also recommends minimizing the use of court-imposed fines and fees in order to reduce financial obligations while prioritizing victim compensation. 

To address the use of detention and costly out-of-home placements, the Task Force recommends modifying the criteria for and limiting the length of both secure detention and other out-of-home placements, prohibiting the use of solitary confinement, and limiting the use of out-of-home placement for youth who violate supervision conditions.  The recommended presumptive lengths of supervision and placement are based in research, and the task force suggests that length of stay be consistent with treatment for the youth’s identified risk and needs. The Task Force also recommends that the state reinvest saved dollars into evidence-based services and programs to serve youth in the community.  The Task Force recommends improved data collection and collaboration and an upfront investment of $4.5 million in FY 2018-19 to support and stimulate the implementation of the recommended policy changes.

The Alabama Juvenile Task Force

In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey, Chief Justice Lyn Stuart, Senate President Del Marsh, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, and other state leaders established the bipartisan, inter-branch Alabama Juvenile Task Force.  Senate Resolution 73 (2017), enacted with unanimous legislative support, charged the Task Force with reviewing Alabama’s juvenile justice system and making recommendations that promote public safety and hold juvenile offenders accountable, control taxpayer costs, and improve outcomes for youth, families and communities in the state.  The 20-member Task Force reviewed a comprehensive set of data from the Administrative Office of the Courts and Division of Youth Services, examined state and local laws and policies, compared other state examples and national research, and gathered input from more than four hundred stakeholders through roundtable discussions and a juvenile probation officer questionnaire.  The Public Safety Performance Project and the Crime and Justice Institute also provided technical assistance to this Task Force.

The Task Force found that while the number of juvenile complaints had declined, the use of out-of-home placement had not;  youth in custody placements can cost as much as 91 times more than probation despite failing to reduce reoffending; low-level youth too often  receive similar system responses as higher risk youth ; the length of supervision has increased significantly in recent years; racial disparities continue  throughout the juvenile system;  and rural areas of the state do not have access to community-based diversion services and evidence-based alternatives.

To address these challenges, the Task Force made 48 recommendations focused on keeping lower-level youth from unnecessary involvement in the system through early interventions and swift, consistent responses; protecting public safety and more effectively allocating taxpayer dollars by focusing system resources on youth who pose the greatest risk to public safety; and establishing and sustaining better public safety outcomes through increased system accountability and reinvestment into evidence-based programs in the community.  If these recommendations are adopted, the state is projected to see a 45 percent reduction in its out-of-home population from projected levels by 2023, and $34 million in funds over five years freed up for reinvestment in community programs.

Alabama’s Task Force has proposed a series of changes to improve the state’s juvenile justice system.  It recommends increasing the use and consistency of informal adjustments and other early interventions, expanding alternatives to pre-adjudication detention, and removing fewer youth from the home.  The Task Force also recommends expanding evidence-based supervision practices and establishing proportionate supervision lengths, tailoring eligibility for removal from the home, and focusing out-of-home resources on youth posing the greatest threat to public safety.  Other recommendations include minimizing excessive fines and fees, mitigating long-term collateral consequences of certain sex offenses, and increasing judicial review in transferring youth to the adult system.  It recommends expanding and investing in evidence-based options in local communities by using the costs averted from reductions in the population of youth in state-funded out-of-home placement, as well as expanding training for juvenile justice system professionals, and increasing system accountability, collaboration, and data collection.

Alabama and Tennessee join a growing number of states looking to improve the return on spending in their juvenile systems, while protecting public safety.  Utah passed a reform package, H.B. 239, in 2017.  Kansas passed evidence-based and reinvestment-oriented reforms (S.B. 367) in 2016, as did South Dakota (S.B. 73) and West Virginia (S.B. 393) in 2015, and Hawaii (H.B. 2490) and Kentucky (S.B. 200) in 2014.  States like Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, Ohio, and California have also enacted juvenile justice reforms that reduce reliance on state custody and confinement.  Several states have already seen positive results and improved outcomes following their juvenile reforms.  For instance, Kansas has reduced its out-of-home population enough to close one of its two juvenile correctional facilities, and Kentucky has launched an incentive grant program to strengthen evidence-based programs in the community.  Many states have revised their policies on financial obligations imposed on youth, including by prioritizing victim restitution, as Alabama and Tennessee’s task forces both recommend. 

Taken together, these states are leaders in re-examining juvenile justice policies and practices in order to strengthen public safety and improve outcomes for youth, families and communities.  In Alabama and Tennessee, the task force recommendations represent the states’ next major step forward.  In 2018, state legislators will consider bills to put these recommendations into policy, and from there into action.