By Rachel Davis
A recent report shows that Alabama may be getting it right when it comes to programs aimed at curbing crimes committed by juveniles. More than 50 of Alabama’s 67 counties have implemented some type of community program to decrease the number of juveniles incarcerated or at-risk in their court systems.
According to the report, released by the Youth Advocate Programs Policy and Advocacy Center, there were 1,485 youth in custody in Alabama last year, compared to 3,340 in 2006. That decrease is significant, as is the finding that 80 percent of the graduates of those youth-based programs did not reoffend upon release.
A majority of the children served by these programs statewide have been in foster care at some point. The program says it can serve three or four children at home for the same cost as incarcerating one.
In Walker County, this effort is led by the Youth Advocate Program, or YAP.
YAP entered Alabama four years ago and currently serves four counties – Baldwin, Cullman, Marshall and Walker. The Walker County program began three years ago, under YAP Director Vivian Davis, with help from District Judge Henry Allred, who hears juvenile cases.
In the four counties served by YAP, 220 Alabama youth have graduated thus far. There are currently 10 to 12 youth ages 12 to 18 in the juvenile justice program in Walker County.
There are also numerous youth who have been recommended to the program from DHR and 18 who were served last year through the YAP truancy program, funded by a grant from the Walker County area Community Foundation.
“We have advocates that work with the children in school, they work with the youth at home and I believe in giving back to the community. That’s huge, it’s so important,” Davis said.
She said the youths in the program had cut grass at the Walker County Children’s Advocacy Center, helped out at the local animal shelter and volunteered at local nursing homes.
“What we try to do is build on their strengths,” Davis explained. “We believe that it’s better for the youth, the family and the community if we can keep them home.”
Allred echoed that, saying that sending a youth away to a program or correctional facility doesn’t hit the root of the problem and they often face the same challenges when they return home.
Another part of the program is helping the kids find jobs. The YAP program provides funding to pay the hourly wage for one of their participants to work in a local business for three months.
The hope is that the business will hire them on part-time after the three months.
“Our community is so important, and we have been so fortunate that Walker County has been very open to our program,” Davis said. “People are just open to our kids and eager to give them a chance and opportunity.
“It gives the kids a sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s all about building on the positive with these kids, targeting the problems and building on their strengths.”