By Brian Edwards
Inside their apartment complex in Auburn, family members talk about Meleke Burton and the changes he has gone through.
In the span of a few months, Burton has gone from being housed in a youth detention facility to planning for the fall semester at AUM. And he has already decided to pursue nursing, following in his mother’s footsteps.
Stacey Hughley, Burton’s mom, couldn’t be happier.
She credits his success to Youth Villages, a Department of Youth Services-funded program that works with juvenile offenders in Lee and Macon counties. The program seeks to get youth offenders out of detainment, or avoid it all together, and provides in-home services to deal with whatever issues they are facing. Experts, including those pushing for juvenile justice reform this last legislative session, believe these types of programs can save the state money while reducing recidivism.
A bill this last session attempted to reinvest $35 million saved from housing youth offenders in DYS facilities back into their communities to help with truancy issues, drug abuse, family counseling and other early intervention services. It attempted to require risk assessments, remove court fines and fees from juveniles’ cases in certain situation and form an oversight committee as well as give judges discretion in putting youth offenders on the sex offender registry.
“Not only is it economical to treat them in their own home, their own school. It is more effective,” said Rep. Jim Hill during session. Hill carried the bill in the House. It eventually failed to gather enough momentum to make it through the Senate, buried under other bills as the short session wrapped up.
As legislators were gearing up for the legislative session this last January, Burton and Hughley were in a predicament. They were in a Lee County courtroom, unable to corral their arguing and outbursts that often ended with police at their door.
“He was at a point where I didn’t know how to communicate with him,” Hughley said. “I was about to give up … I felt like I had my back against the wall.”