Juvenile justice system leaders gather to review current programs, identify additional support needs for youth and families

By Joseph Bryant

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – Juvenile justice advocates and officials gathered recently for a summit to explore existing programs that aid youth and families and explore ways to address unmet challenges that impact the River Region.

The summit was an initiative of Montgomery Thrive. Montgomery Thrive is a collaboration of the City of Montgomery and Montgomery County designed to support transformative projects with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The City of Montgomery and the Montgomery County Commission have each pledged $750,000 in additional funding to support violence intervention programs. That includes juvenile reentry programs.

“That’s the biggest thing, getting agencies that have never been in a room together,” said City Councilor Oronde Mitchell. “We serve the same students, so we’ve just got to make sure that we are talking. There are some programs out there that are already working. Everybody says the youth are our future, and the only way that we can make them a brighter future is to have these programs in place. Every child that makes a mistake should not be thrown away or locked up forever. If you make a mistake, there are programs to help you get back on track.”

The priorities for Montgomery Thrive are modeled after Department of Justice guidance on youth re-entry which focuses primarily on youth held in detention centers and in alternative education programs. These goals advise creating programs to help youth stay out of the juvenile justice system and transition back into their community following their release from the juvenile justice system.

This also involves investing in existing organizations and partners. Additionally, goals include identifying areas where youth and families fall through the cracks and crafting ways to address those unmet needs.

Work in Montgomery County is part of a national effort to tackle a challenge that impacts the entire country. According to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there are about 36,500 youth in residential placement in the U.S. Most of these young people will eventually return to their communities and need support for a successful introduction to society.

The need for support also extends to their parents, families, and community members, officials stressed. National experts advise a “think exit at entry” strategy for youth offenders. This means that the justice system, related agencies, and community leaders plan for what is needed to help offenders re-enter society long before they are released from the system. Doing such requires cross-collaboration and multiple phases.

Existing services in Montgomery County include a 10-week behavior and after-school intervention program for students and parents. Students attending the McIntyre Community Center receive the services of a behavior interventionist on site. Once they leave the center, the student is given a transitional coach to help to helps them adjust to their new environment.

This program is similar to an initiative in Oakland, Calif., that helps youth with gang affiliations reenter their communities after confinement. In the WE RISE Project program, a dedicated probation officer and a life coach help juveniles address a series of issues, including meeting their probation requirements, returning to school, gaining a job, and returning to school. Following the national guidance of “think exit at entry,” services begin before release and continue after release.

The need for wrap-around services is also evident as many juveniles return home to unstable environments, setting a stage for another cycle of dysfunction and a return to the justice system. Dr. Scott Holmes, with the U.S. Probation Office called the recent gathering of Montgomery juvenile justice leaders a productive beginning to enhancing programs within the county.

“I like how we are looking at it from a holistic viewpoint where we are not just treating the child but treating the whole family,” Dr. Holmes said. “That’s very important because a lot of times they go back into those same situations, so therefore, if we bring the two together and help them understand that and do an intervention, it’s going to work perfectly.” Montgomery officials also discussed the need to offer additional services, including a program to serve youths 13 to 17. The new service would help students referred by Montgomery Public Schools through the McIntyre Community Center, the youth detention and court system, and non-profit advocacy groups.

The program would be multifaceted to serve various youth needs from education and career planning to drug and alcohol education and prevention. Participants will be assessed when beginning and leaving the program, and individual plans will be created to meet the specific needs of each participant.

“I am excited about this collaboration,” Charles “Tim”Baker with Montgomery Public Schools said of the initial meeting of Montgomery County juvenile justice leaders. “We brought in so many different stakeholders to work collaboratively. I do see it as a step in the right direction. The hard part will be narrowing down which students we will be able to work with because the need is great. Anything we can do to get students on the right track is needed. We’re losing our kids to violence. If we don’t do something, we’re going to lose more.”

Montgomery City and County Montgomery Thrive spending priorities also include support for public safety, mental health crisis intervention, broadband, community restoration initiatives, small business assistance, and waste disposal infrastructure.