Profile No. 43

Juvenile Gun Court -- Birmingham, AL

Program Type or Federal Program Source:
Court-related programs.

Program Goal:
To deliver swift, sure, and appropriate consequences to juveniles found in possession of a gun.

Specific Groups Targeted by the Strategy:
Juvenile gun offenders.

Geographical Area Targeted by the Strategy:
Birmingham, AL.

Evaluated by:
Internal data collection.

Contact Information:
Judge Sandra Storm
Family Court of Jefferson County
120 Second Court North
Birmingham, AL 35204
Phone: 205­325­5538

Years of Operation:

Birmingham's Juvenile Gun Court was established in April 1995 by Sandra H. Storm, a Circuit Court Judge in the Family Court of Jefferson County. Juvenile deaths had reached a peak in 1994 when there were 34 deaths of individuals ages 18 and younger, of which 25 were murders or other acts resulting in the death of another person. After reading an article in the Birmingham News about an adult gun court in Rhode Island, Judge Storm began planning for the development of a court to handle juvenile gun cases, in the hope that early intervention could reduce the number of homicides and other serious gun crimes involving youth.

The judicial infrastructure for establishing a juvenile gun court was already in place. Family Court judges had the authority for mandatory detention of juvenile offenders; discretion as to whether juvenile cases were eligible for diversion; a mandate to review incoming cases within 72 hours of arrest; a mandate to hold trials within 10 days; and access to 30-day boot camps. In addition, the judge had reviewed several research articles (including studies from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention) that concluded that the most effective boot camps were those that included intensive followup and the involvement of parents. It was decided that Birmingham's initiative would include these critical elements and would be designed to ensure swift, sure, and fair consequences for juvenile gun offenders.

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In January 1995, the Family Court of Jefferson County hosted a "town meeting" to discuss the formation of the new Gun Court. Among those represented were social service providers; the Alabama Department of Youth Services (DYS), which provides a range of services to troubled and court-involved youth and runs juvenile detention facilities; law enforcement; criminal defense attorneys; and many other public and private organizations. Impact, Inc., a local nonprofit organization providing services for children, adults, and families involved in the criminal justice system, also attended these early meetings and became a key partner. The organization was already under contract to the Family Court to conduct a 9-week family counseling program, and the "family communication" curriculum used in that program was adapted for use with Gun Court parents. By April 1, 1995, the core components of the Gun Court had been developed, linkages with key agencies had been established, Family Court had reallocated funds and other resources to support the program, and the first docketed cases were heard by a judge. In mid-May 1995, the Parent Education Program (PEP) was implemented, and the court recently started juvenile education classes for youth whose parents are in the PEP sessions.

The Family Court of Jefferson County is located on a campus like setting and is a centralized venue for handling all juvenile crime and delinquency cases from violent offenses such as murder to truancy, abuse, and neglect cases. The Family Court oversees 20 programs (13 of them located on the premises), and a detention center abutting the court building has the capacity to hold 80 youth. The average length of stay for detainees, who range in age from 10 through 19, is 30 days. Legal Aid, an Assistant District Attorney, drug-testing services, a probation office, child support personnel, and a family therapist also are located in the complex.

This centralization of services is considered one of the keys to the success of the Juvenile Gun Court. Having most juvenile government agencies collocated in the Family Court complex eliminates many of the logistical barriers to obtaining services for youth with ongoing needs. For example, a judge or probation officer can request on-the-spot assessment or mental health placement through the onsite court liaison officer. If a youth tells a probation officer that his or her recent urine screen was negative, it is easy to verify the results in person. Strong networks and relationships with external agencies also facilitate case management. With a mental health liaison who is fully knowledgeable about State and local agencies, a call to the head of a private substance abuse treatment center can be placed, and an opening for a treatment bed can be quickly secured. However, mere physical proximity and strong personal networks would be insufficient were it not for the fact that staff caseloads, though not ideal, are lower than in most localities.

The Department of Probation is a key partner and has two full-time staff and one part-time staff member assigned to the Gun Court. Juvenile probation officers are responsible for the intensive monitoring of high-risk youth once they complete the 30-day boot camp. The officers have a caseload of approximately 40 youth (the goal is a ratio of 1staff member to 15 probationers). Other law enforcement agencies also have extensive involvement with the Gun Court. The County Sheriff's Office and the Birmingham Police Department accompany probation officers on home visits as part of the Operation Nighttime Crime Eradicators (ONCE) program, which is modeled on Boston's Operation Night Light program (see profile 33). Since May 1996, ATF has devoted resources from its Project LEAD program (a national gun-tracing initiative) to interview youth and to obtain information on weapons recovered through Gun Court. Between July 1, 1996, and April 30, 1997, ATF has collected data from 693 gun traces.

Although the Gun Court prosecutes cases from throughout Jefferson County, a large proportion of gun cases are from the western part of the city, which has therefore become a target area for the ONCE program. The area is a designated Enterprise Zone and also has communities being targeted through the U.S. Department of Justice Weed and Seed program. Birmingham is one of the sites participating in ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative, and it has received two grants from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Local Law Enforcement Block Grants that were used primarily for mapping technology.

Cases are processed through the Juvenile Gun Court as follows:

  • Arrest. There are a number of gun offenses with which juveniles may be charged:

    • Gun found: A weapon is seized by police officers as part of another primary charge (e.g., shoplifting).

    • Gun possession: Having a gun is the primary or only charge. The majority of gun cases fall into this category (59 percent of all cases in 1997). Most of the weapons are recovered during traffic stops by the police.

    • Menacing: A gun was used to frighten or harass someone.

    • Gun used in a crime: A gun was used in the commission of an armed robbery, burglary, assault, or other serious crime.

    • Gun fired: A gun was fired near people or into a home, building, or vehicle.

    • Murder: A gun was fired at a person (this category includes murder and attempted murder).

    We developed our program based on what we learned from the research literature about what was effective in changing juvenile behavior. First, we knew that there had to be swift, sure, and fair consequences so that it was clear that if you committed a gun offense it was going to be treated seriously. Second, we knew that boot camps were more likely to be effective if they included services and intensive followup. We knew that any intervention with a juvenile was going to be much more effective if you involved the parent. And finally, we knew that you would have to deal with the problem comprehensively, by linking the juvenile and his or her family to other social services and resources. We designed our Juvenile Gun Court so that it included all of these elements.

    --Hon. Sandra H. Storm
    Birmingham, AL, Juvenile Gun Court

    In 1997 there were 398 gun complaints filed on 302 individuals. Among those individuals, 48 (16 percent) had prior gun charges, and 7 (2 percent) were charged with murder or attempted murder. The data also show that 233 (77 percent) of the arrestees had prior contact with Family Court, and 175 (58 percent) had prior delinquency complaints filed against them. Only first-time gun offenders are eligible for Gun Court; youth with multiple gun charges or with violent or other serious offenses are transferred to adult court or DYS. Alabama State law allows juveniles as young as 14 to be tried as adults.

  • Court intake. All juveniles arrested for gun offenses are retained; there is no discretion to transfer cases from formal prosecution to diversion programs.

  • Detention hearing. All Gun Court hearings are held within 72 hours. Youth may request a trial or may plead "true" at this point.

  • Trial. Trials must be held within 10 working days for all who request it.

  • Boot camp. Male youth who plead "true" are immediately dispatched to the High Intensive Training (HIT) program at the Autauga facility, a DYS boot camp in Prattville, AL. (There are separate boot camps for boys and girls with a long waiting list for the latter since girls commit so few gun offenses. In 1997, for example, only 6 percent of juvenile gun offenders were female.) With a 78-bed capacity, the boot camp includes other DYS-referred youth, but the majority of the residents are Gun Court referrals. HIT is designed to instill self-discipline, respect for authority, problem-solving skills, and other appropriate social skills. The highly regimented day begins at 5 a.m. with physical exercise, and throughout the day youth participate in group counseling, team-building exercises, academic remediation, journal-writing, and other activities that reinforce desired skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Youth are judged daily against a list of desired traits and behaviors, and infractions can result in extending the amount of time in the boot camp by days or weeks. Autauga is one of more than 30facilities run or supported by DYS. Referrals also can be made to another 25private providers (group homes, treatment centers, hospitals, alternative schools, and other facilities).

  • Parent education program. Parents are party to their children's cases and are mandated to attend a 7-week workshop series; failure to comply can result in their incarceration. The sessions, which are held Tuesday evenings, use volunteers and staff from Impact, Inc., to try to impress upon parents that a gun offense is a serious matter, but that it is an opportunity for them and their children to address the underlying problems that led to the offense. The Gun Court is in the midst of its 24th PEP cycle. Court data from 1995 indicate an 87-percent completion rate for PEP participants.

  • Probation. After release from the HIT program at Autauga, all youth are placed on maximum supervision probation, which may last from 30 days to 6 months. Maximum supervision requires twice-daily telephone check-in with a probation officer or unannounced visits from the probation officer at least twice each week. Limited resources affect the length of time a youth remains under maximum supervision. During the initial period of probation, youth are under house arrest except for school attendance or work. After compliance during the initial probation period, participants are allowed out of the house from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Violations of probation can result in a probationer being placed on an electronic monitoring system or being monitored by a telephone voice recognition system. During probation, youth must complete the Alabama Substance Abuse Program, a prevention-based program.

    Probation officers team up with law enforcement officials to make home visits through the ONCE program. ONCE targets juveniles age 17 and younger, making visits on 2 randomly selected nights per week, at random times during the night. All probation officers are trained by police before they take part in ONCE visits and are required to wear bulletproof vests. Between July 1997 and August 1998, the ONCE team made more than 1,152 curfew visits, executed 245 pickup orders, and served 67 summonses (these data include all juvenile probation cases, not just those from the Gun Court).

The final component of the Gun Court is community outreach: staff make presentations to local schools and community groups and distribute brochures that explain the consequences for gun offenses. This is the least developed court component, primarily because of a lack of resources. From the outset, the Juvenile Gun Court has had few sources of outside support and has relied on existing Family Court resources, agency networks, and service providers to meet the needs of youthful offenders. This may make institutionalization of program elements more likely since the work is considered part of core work assignments, but it can become problematic if the court's caseload continues to rise.

During the first year of operation, there was an increase in the number of gun offenses reported and handled by the new court: 323 offenses in 1995 compared with 273 offenses in 1994 (pre-Gun Court). This paradoxical outcome is believed to be the result of increased awareness among law enforcement officers that there were now credible sanctions for juvenile gun charges. Since the court was established in 1995, juvenile gun offenses in general, and gun-related deaths in particular, have been decreasing. Juvenile gun offenses dropped from 323 cases in 1995 to 302 in 1997; gun-related deaths were almost cut in half, from 30 in 1995 to 18 in 1997. However, court data also show that offenders are getting younger: in 1995, only 9 offenders were age 13 or younger, but by 1997 there were 24 Gun Court cases involving youth in this age range -- including one 9-year-old and two 10-year-olds.

Based on police data, during the past 2 years, gun-related juvenile offenses have declined 38.7 percent in Birmingham from 266 offenses during the period from September 1996 through August 1997 to 170 offenses from September 1997 through August 1998. An inhouse review of recidivism rates compared the first 100 Juvenile Gun Court cases with the first 100 cases from 1994, the year before the court was established. Gun Court youth had an overall reoffense rate of 41 percent, compared with 73 percent among pre-Gun Court youth. In addition, those adjudicated in the Gun Court were less likely to reoffend on gun charges -- 11 percent had new gun offenses, compared with a 32-percent gun reoffense rate among juveniles whose cases were adjudicated prior to the Gun Court.

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