A study released last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based charitable organization created to help disadvantaged children, showed Alabama had 1,686 confined youth offenders in 1997, 82 of them from Calhoun County. By 2010, that number had shrunk to 1,101 offenders, with 52 from Calhoun County.
Allen Teaton, deputy director of administration for the Alabama Department of Youth Services, said the decrease came just in time. Teaton said the department was facing a parallel problem with adult prisons in Alabama. The state’s prisons were at 190 percent capacity in 2012, according to the Department of Corrections.
“We were just inundated with a number of commitments coming into DYS,” Teaton said. “We had more people coming in and not enough bed space.”
Many of the offenders in DYS custody, according to Teaton, committed non-violent crimes that didn’t require the kids to be locked up.
“There were a lot of kids who were coming to DYS not for robbing stores or people or houses, but for truancy or not obeying their parents,” Teaton said.
After 3,340 children were committed to DYS in 2006, officials were determined to work with juvenile courts to lower the number sent to their facility, Teaton said. The money saved in the process served as grants made available to local “diversion programs” across the state. Teaton estimated $10 million is spent in grants every year on the 47 sponsored programs across the state. Calhoun County’s programs, the Success Academy and Camp Robert E. Lewis, received $688,000 last year, according to the DYS website.
“It’s been a five-year process that’s brought about dramatic, successful change,” Teaton said.
Linda Tilly, executive director of Voices for Alabama’s Children, hopes to see even more changes in the future.
Tilly said she believes the media and public’s perception of juvenile offenders was the reason a lot of youth were locked up.
“We were locking up a lot of young people who did not need to be incarcerated,” Tilly said. “A lot of them needed some help. Some needed punishment, but they didn’t need to be incarcerated.”
Creating local programs to understand why youth were committing crimes, possibly from anger issues or a dysfunctional family, was important in changing that perception, Tilly said.
She also said sending every child to DYS was counterproductive in reducing juvenile crime rates.
“Juveniles who didn’t need to be there learned a lot of bad habits from those that were violent,” Tilly said.
Tilly said even though the number of children sent to DYS has dropped 35 percent, a high percentage of non-violent children is still sent to the facility, according to a study done by Voices for Alabama’s Children.
The study found that in 2007, 83 percent of the youth incarcerated at DYS were considered non-violent. Tilly said in 2010, the number of non-violent offenders decreased by a little more than 1 percent.
“We’ve addressed one problem of not committing so many youth to programs to be incarcerated, but we still don’t have enough appropriate alternatives for judges to use,” Tilly said.
Tilly is hopeful that more general funding will increase the number of local programs helping youth who have lost their way.
One of the diversion programs serving Calhoun County’s youth is the Success Academy, run by Family Links Inc.
Lyndsey Gillam, executive director of Family Links, said the program provides therapy and tutoring services to kids who have committed non-violent offenses. She said the program also works with families to make sure children have the tools to “make better choices so they don’t continue a life of crime.”
Gillam said the program is run like an average school day, and most juveniles attend the program for 120 days. Children take online classes, receive group and individual counseling and learn healthy habits from Gadsden State Community College nursing program students, she said.
The program has been known to catch children up in school if they are a grade behind, Gillam said, and someone is available 24 hours a day for counseling.
“It’s a safety net for youth who would have traditionally been sent to DYS long term,” Gillam said.
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.
Editor's note: This story has been modified from the version originally published to correct the name deputy director of administration for the Alabama Department of Youth Services. He is Allen Peaton.