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The conservative approach to criminal justice:
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Why Conservatives Should Support Juvenile Justice Reform

| February 6, 2018

This article by Right on Crime Signatory and former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee,  originally appeared in AL.com on February 6th, 2018.

As conservatives and people of faith, we know that a strong and united family is the best agent for meaningful change in a child’s life. Sadly, when it comes to our juvenile justice system, states around the country too often rely on invasive, ineffective government interventions to correct a child’s behavior.

Fortunately, Alabama is on the cusp of changing this pattern and taking steps toward a better way forward.

The Alabama legislature is considering House Bill 225, a bill introduced this session by Rep. Jim Hill and Sen. Cam Ward that will better protect public safety and hold juvenile offenders accountable, while providing families and communities with the supports necessary to turn around the lives of troubled young people.

HB 225 is based on the recommendations of the 20-member Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force, which was appointed last year at the request of state leadership. Governor Kay Ivey asked the Task Force to assess Alabama’s juvenile justice system and recommend policy solutions that would protect public safety, control costs, and improve outcomes for children and their families.

As a former Governor, I recognize this was a tall ask. But this Task Force came through; conducting a rigorous, data-driven study with input from hundreds of Alabamians and delivering a report to state leadership in December that contained some alarming findings along with a set of smart, common sense solutions.

We know from research and successful reform legislation in Texas and Georgia that sending youth to taxpayer-funded out-of-home placements for low-level offenses doesn’t rehabilitate and can actually make youth more likely to reoffend when they return home. Yet in Alabama, the Task Force found that two-thirds of the youth removed from their families and placed in state custody are committed for non-felonies, such as petty theft or probation violations like missing curfew. These out-of-home placements can cost Alabama taxpayers as much as $161,694 per youth per year.

Worse, judges, probation officers, and law enforcement–especially in rural areas–lack access to the community-based programs like family therapy, mentoring, and substance abuse treatment that are shown to keep our communities safer and put youth on the right path to productive adulthood.

The Task Force’s recommendations reflected in HB 225 ensure that youth who pose the greatest threat to public safety receive the most serious punishment. At the same time, they keep low-level youth with little prior history out of costly facilities, instead holding them accountable through community-based programs that cost less and work better.

Enacting HB 225 would reduce the population of youth living in state-funded facilities by 45 percent over five years, allowing for reinvestment of more than $34 million in state funds into evidence-based alternatives by 2023. By reallocating current system resources to less costly and more effective options, Alabama can help ensure that youth in the juvenile system do not exit it only to enter the adult system.

Whenever possible, the state should ensure that the punishment meets the crime, and with so many youth in state-funded facilities for low-level offenses, the legislature must act. By focusing out-of-home responses on youth who pose the greatest threat to public safety while placing low-level youth in community-based programs, Alabama will be able to respond to delinquent behavior more appropriately and ensure better outcomes for youth and families.

In addition, keeping young people who are not a threat to public safety out of juvenile justice facilities is also a moral issue. When kids are kept with their families and participate in high-quality programs that empower families and address the root causes of delinquency, they have the ability to lean on the supports in their communities while they get back on the right path.

I strongly encourage the Alabama legislature to consider HB 225. This bill represents an opportunity to join with conservatives and faith leaders across the county in supporting juvenile justice reform that reflects good governance and embodies the strong conservative principles of limited government.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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