Judge Brenda Stedham of the 7th Circuit decided last week to oversee all juvenile delinquency and dependency cases and all alternative sentencing programs for juveniles, such as the drug court.
Stedham’s move prompted Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh to announce he would temporarily discontinue prosecutorial referrals of juveniles to drug court and adults to family drug court until he knew more about how the programs would operate under Stedham.
But court officials said Tuesday that section 12-15-215 of Alabama law gives Stedham, as the presiding judge in juvenile court, the ultimate authority to send youthful offenders to drug court or other alternative programs, even if an attorney objects to the court’s decision.
The code reads that the juvenile court has the right to order juvenile delinquents to “local, public, or private agency, organization, or facility willing and able to assume the education, care, and maintenance of the child and which is licensed or otherwise authorized by law to receive and provide care for children.”
The code states that the juvenile court can “make any other order as the juvenile court in its discretion shall deem to be for the welfare and best interests of the child, including random drug screens, assessment of fines not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars ($250), and restitution against the parent, legal guardian, legal custodian, or child, as the juvenile court deems appropriate.”
“Under the state code of Alabama, the judge has the authority to order any child or any family under the jurisdiction of this court into any program under the jurisdiction of this court, including drug courts; it is totally her decision,” Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Randy Reaves said. “Once Judge Stedham took it over, it is her sole responsibility … other people can make recommendations as to whether they think it’s appropriate or not appropriate, but it is the sole decision of Judge Stedham.”
McVeigh said Monday that his only comment was to reiterate that — for now — prosecutors would not refer juveniles to the juvenile drug court or other alternative sentencing programs until he had a better understanding of what, if anything, about the programs would change under Stedham’s leadership.
Stedham said she and McVeigh have talked “at least once about how there will be no change to the programs” other than that she plans to supervise them. McVeigh declined to comment.
Those programs were started six years ago by Judge Laura Phillips, the district judge for family court. Phillips ran the programs and oversaw half of the area juvenile delinquency cases until Stedham’s decision.
Phillips said last week that she was under the impression that the juvenile and family drug courts could not continue without the stamp of approval from the DA.
...or she can’t?
Another section of Alabama law seems to suggest that drug court programs must have the DA’s consent, seemingly contradicting what Reaves said about Stedham having ultimate decision-making authority as to whether delinquent juveniles will be enrolled in a drug court program.
The Alabama Drug Offender Accountability Act of 2010, section 12-23 of Alabama law, states “the presiding judge of each judicial circuit, with the consent of the district attorney of that judicial circuit, may establish a drug court or courts, under which drug offenders shall be processed, to appropriately address the identified substance abuse problem of- the drug offender as a condition of pretrial release, pretrial diversion, probation, jail, prison, parole, community corrections, or other release or diversion from a correctional facility.”
But both Reaves and Stedham said Tuesday that state law specifically applies to adult courts and has no bearing on what happens in juvenile court.
Stedham said the language used in the 2010 act applied only to adult offenders, noting that adult facilities like “jail” and “prison” were mentioned in the law but that the code made no specific mention of juvenile detention or the Department of Youth Services.
Also, the law defines “drug court” as a “judicial intervention program for drug offenders in the criminal division of the circuit or district court,” but makes no specific mention of juvenile court.
Still, the law doesn’t specifically exclude juvenile drug courts or juvenile offenders either, and it states that “all drug courts shall comply with this act.”
Deciding to act
Phillips said Monday she still has no idea why Stedham used her authority as presiding judge in family court to take the drug courts out from under Phillips’ supervision, especially because she was the person who sought funding for and helped to create the programs in the first place.
Stedham and Phillips have talked about the changes only once since Stedham issued a statement last Thursday.
For her part, Stedham has said she made the decision to better ensure “that juveniles are being dealt with properly” and “that each juvenile’s civil rights will be fully protected.”
Stedham told The Star she could not comment on whether her decision was related to a Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office program that allowed suspended-from-school students and juvenile offenders to spend time at the county jail, wearing inmate jumpsuits and performing menial tasks at the request of corrections officers.
That program is tied to a recently published video that shows Sheriff Larry Amerson using manual force on a shackled and handcuffed juvenile who participated in that program. The FBI is investigating that video and a federal lawsuit filed against Amerson makes allegations that juveniles who participated in the jail program came into contact with inmates.
The value of sentencing options
Phillips said the juvenile and family drug courts she ran had nothing to do with the Sheriff’s Office program and were models for other drug courts in the state.
“I’m extraordinarily passionate about my kids and my family drug courts,” Phillips said. “I’m dedicated to that; I honestly don’t know why this has happened.”
Phillips said the juvenile and family drug courts also save the Department of Youth Services and the Department of Human Resources time and money by successfully rehabilitating kids and parents with drug problems for less than it would cost those two state agencies to do so.
It costs about $100,000 a year to run both drug courts, Phillips said. And the juvenile drug court has helped to reduce the juvenile recidivism rate, said Cyndi Haynes, the drug courts coordinator.
Haynes said that out of the 50 juveniles who went through the drug court in 2010, 78 percent have not committed another delinquent act. But Haynes couldn’t provide numbers about what the recidivism rate is for juvenile delinquents who do not attend drug court programs and are instead committed to DYS care.
DYS spokesman Allen Peaton said Tuesday that he can’t specifically speak to how well drug court programs work in terms of reducing juvenile recidivism but did verify those types of alternative sentencing programs save money for state detention facilities for juveniles.
He said, in general, it costs between $135 and $145 per day per juvenile who is simply detained in one those facilities, not to mention any in-house rehabilitation costs DYS might incur while that juvenile is there.
Both Peaton and Peter Johnson, a retired Birmingham judge and the chairman of the Alabama Drug Court Task Force, agreed with Haynes that alternative sentencing programs and juvenile drug courts are more effective in many ways than incarceration because their focus is on rehabilitation.
“All of the national research and literature suggest kids do better in programs within the home communities; the outcomes are consistently better,” Peaton said.
Johnson noted that 16 Alabama counties now have family and juvenile drug courts and 57 counties have adult drug courts.
Keeping the programs alive
Stedham emphasized Monday it was not her intent to do away with the drug courts already in place.
“I plan to continue and to evaluate the programs to see if they need to be modified or if they are working well just the way they are,” Stedham said. “I think once the prosecutors realize that there’s no major change being made other than the judge who’s being assigned to those drug courts, yes, I think they’ll cooperate and be willing to agree.”
McVeigh said Calhoun and Cleburne counties have benefited from Phillips’ work in establishing the programs for juveniles and in seeking and obtaining funding for those programs.
“Those programs are a vital part today of our juvenile court system,” McVeigh said.
Stedham and Phillips have both expressed that sentiment, too.
“They continue to operate just as they operated two weeks ago until I make some different determination, and I have no interest in terminating them,” Stedham said.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.