Alabama Department of Youth Services The Alabama Department of Youth Services (DYS) was founded in 1973 to house and rehabilitate juvenile offenders and promote public safety. Previously, troubled youths were sent to independent and unlicensed reformatory schools, and even placed in the convict-lease system in prior decades. DYS operates three detention facilities located in Prattville, Autauga County; Mount Meigs, Montgomery County; and Birmingham, Jefferson County. The department also has 10 contracted locations throughout the state.
Youth may be admitted for drug possession, sexual crimes, weapons violations, property violations, personal and nonpersonal felonies, and technical offenses. These individuals are referred to as student offenders as opposed to inmates. Once in DYS custody, student offenders attend school, receive support from licensed counselors, and are given opportunities for career and technical training. Over the course of the last decade, DYS has admitted more than 17,000 student offenders. In an average year, close to 2,200 youths are admitted. The number, however, has gradually decreased each year because of improvements in juvenile justice program interventions.
DYS is controlled by a 22-member board consisting of the heads of various other state agencies, including education, health, and law enforcement, as well as lawmakers, the governor, and other officials. The agency is overseen by a director appointed by the board. It operates on a budget of approximately $7 million dollars annually and is funded through the state general fund, state grants, and federal funds like from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It is headquartered on its main campus in Mount Meigs.
Juvenile delinquency gained more national attention in the 1960s in response to rising numbers of property crimes committed by individuals under 21. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that juveniles should be granted the same constitutional rights as adults. In Alabama that year, Gov. Lurleen Wallace created a youth committee to prevent juvenile delinquency, an effort that was followed up by Gov. Albert Brewer who created the Division of Juvenile Delinquency within the Department of Pensions and Security. In 1973, the Alabama Legislature authorized the creation of Alabama Department of Youth Services and folded into it the functions of the youth committee and juvenile delinquency division. The legislation also authorized the construction of state-regulated and -licensed detention facilities in Alabama and prohibited non-licensed facilities in the state. During this period, in 1974 Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act (JJDP Act) and created the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). The law required that juveniles be separated from adults and prohibited the institutionalization of youth for offenses that would not be crimes if they were adults (called status offenses), such as skipping school and using alcohol. In addition, the law provides grants to states through the OJJDP and established new standards for states when handling youth offenders. Subsequent reauthorizations of the JJDP Act increased the focus on prevention, treatment, and protections for youth. Along with these changes, OJJDP funded the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) to collect state-level juvenile court statistics and moved states to common definitions for ensure uniform reporting.
Alabama Boys Industrial School Prior to the creation of DYS, which became operational in 1974, juvenile delinquency was handled through independent community homes, such as the Alabama Industrial School in Birmingham. That facility was established by reformer Elizabeth Johnston in 1899 to house orphans and other needy youth. It operated until 1975, when it was taken over by DYS. A similar home was established in Birmingham for girls: the Alabama State Training School for Girls. A facility for African Americans was created in 1911 near Mt. Meigs and would later be known as the Alabama Industrial School. These homes were operated by volunteers, who were typically women, to prevent delinquent boys from serving dangerous sentences in coal mines. Notably, there were distinct racial disparities in the treatment of children within these homes. The Roebuck and Chalkville treatment facilities, which housed white children, received educational and remedial interventions, whereas students at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at the Mt. Meigs facility received hard labor and corporal punishment. Integration of the facilities in the wake of the civil rights movement helped alleviate some of these disparities.
DYS took over these community efforts in the early 1970s, incorporating the reformatory homes and adding other facilities throughout the state. The facilities were then charged with providing education and social services to delinquent youth and promote and safeguard their well-being and general welfare. Since then, DYS has sought to achieve this goal with comprehensive programs for preventing delinquency and rehabilitating youthful offenders.
Writing Our Stories DYS provides several forms of treatment to student offenders to decrease the chances they will enter detention centers. County diversion programs throughout the state, for instance, keep student offenders with their families. The Mt. Meigs campus also offers a chemical addiction program to help students with substance abuse issues. In addition, the agency funds two therapeutic treatment programs: Working on Womanhood (WOW) and the Accountability-Based Sex Offender Program (ABSOP). The WOW program serves girls ages 13-18 who are in DYS custody and have been identified as having mental health needs in addition to requiring behavioral rehabilitation. These girls are often the survivors of some form of sexual abuse. This program works with the University of Alabama School of Social Work to provide gender-based interventions and group and individual therapy. The ABSOP program also serves juveniles ages 13-18; however, these offenders have been committed to DYS custody for sex offenses. In partnership with Auburn University‘s Department of Psychology, ABSOP employs multifaceted research-based treatment methods to rehabilitate juvenile offenders. Although both programs take special interest in specific offenses committed by and against youth, all DYS programs maintain a focus on safety, justice, and rehabilitation for Alabama youth offenders. Since 2002, the Alabama Writers Forum has partnered with DYS to host the annual Writing Our Stories: An Anti-Violence Creative Writing Program, which brings creative writing instruction to juveniles housed at the Mt. Meigs campus. Each year, their writing is collected in an anthology.
The primary purpose of DYS is to house juveniles and maintain public safety, but the organization continues striving to foster the social, educational, and occupational success of student offenders. Early in its establishment, DYS employed “boot camp-type” rehabilitation methods that aggressively sought compliance with DYS standards. In the 1980s, however, new federal mandates required changes in the agency’s focus and provided additional funding for needs-based rehabilitation in a comprehensive model that addressed the many needs of student offenders. These methods resulted in a decline of youth recidivism of approximately 40 percent since the early 2000s.
Mt. Meigs Campus of ADYS In 2006, however, admission rates reached their highest recorded levels. Alabama chief justice Sue Bell Cobb and Gov. Robert “Bob” Riley sought to address this issue and reduce rates with the help of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Through this partnership, the lawmakers and the juvenile justice system enacted new laws, improved practices at the local level, and implemented state-level strategies for reform. These changes helped DYS shift to a smaller, more effective system that focuses on community-based and local interventions through community collaborations instead of detention. These methods have decreased detention center rolls without compromising the organization’s primary mission of public safety. In 2015, the department was awarded an Evidence2Success grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to specifically coordinate evidence-based strategies with local partners and strengthen the juvenile justice system in Selma, Dallas County. A similar effort was begun in Mobile, Mobile County, in 2016. The agency has also implemented new methods to collect data to ensure that the organization meets the highest standards of service performance. The organization now collects and analyzes data using the Performance Based Standards Model that sets goals, develops improvement plans, and provides a professional network for employee training and program implementation.
The Alabama Department of Youth Services continues to work towards reducing juvenile delinquency through comprehensive treatment, community partnerships, and innovative organizational practices. DYS aims to find balance between therapeutic intervention and juvenile justice while maintaining public safety for all Alabamians.
- Armor, Jerry. A Home for Wayward Boys: The Early History of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2015.