Faced with high rates of violent crime among local teens, Mobile County Juvenile Court Judge Edmond Naman recently created an initiative aimed at reducing recidivism rates among some first-time juvenile offenders when a gun is involved in the commission of a crime.
Known as Gun Court, the idea is to enroll those between the ages of 13 and 17 who qualify into a more intensive probationary period that includes mandatory parental involvement during a six-month program. Participants and their parents are required to meet face-to-face weekly with a probation officer and Judge Naman during the program. They also have to attend a series of classes with a goal of keeping them from committing more serious crimes.
“We are dramatically changing the way we supervise some kids,” Naman said. “We are getting almost real-time information about how these kids are doing, so we can act very quickly if something comes up.”
That real time information comes from Jon Humphrey, a juvenile probation officer in Mobile County who is coordinating the new Gun Court at James T. Strickland Youth Center. Humphrey spends his days checking up on students at school, at the youth center or at their homes while they are on probation. He talks with teachers and school counselors about a student’s grades and conduct, and speaks with their parents often about whether they are keeping curfew and other issues that may arise over the course of the probationary period.
There were 1,054 juveniles on probation with the Juvenile Court of Mobile County in April 2014, records show. Many of those juveniles are on probation for what Naman described as low-level offenses and require only once-a-month meetings with probation officers at Strickland Youth Center and Mobile County Juvenile Court. So far in 2014, there have been as many as 15 gun-related charges stemming from juvenile cases seen by Naman.
In 2012, the last year for which complete records are available, there were 106 weapons-related charges among those tried as juveniles in Mobile County, court records indicate. That number is down from a high of 146 weapons charges among youth offenders in 2008. In 2012 in Mobile County, there were 55 charges for not having a pistol permit, 14 charges for menacing, 13 charges for carrying a concealed weapon and 10 charges for first degree robbery, which involved using a gun in the commission of the crime.
“What we try to explain to children who come here with a weapons charge is that all it takes is one bad decision to negatively affect them and someone else for the rest of their lives,” Humphrey said. “This program gives us a better chance to get on top of behavioral problems they may have. Because they are required to see a judge and a probation officer on a weekly basis, it offers more accountability.”
Launched in January this year, there were 17 participants in the Gun Court in mid-April: 15 males and two females. Participants are required to attend gun safety classes along with their parents. They also must listen to a father tell the story of how he lost his daughter in a shooting. Another speaker, from the Mobile Police Department, gives participants and their parents gritty real-life examples of what can happen to juveniles who land in county lockup and are tried as adults for crimes committed with guns.
“I think that hits home with them,” Humphrey said. “A homicide detective lets the kids know exactly what awaits them. He shares stories based on actual cases.”
Not all first-time offenders between the ages of 13 and 17 will qualify to take part in Mobile County’s new Gun Court, Humphrey said. Those with gun-related charges accusing them of shooting another person or firing into an occupied home or vehicle wouldn’t be eligible. Some charges that would qualify a first-time offender for the program include possession of a firearm (carrying a pistol without a license); menacing involving a gun; theft of or receiving a stolen gun; reckless endangerment involving a gun; and possession of a short-barreled shotgun or short-barreled rifle.
Mobile’s new juvenile Gun Court is modeled after similar programs in other cities, specifically the one in Jefferson County, Alabama, Humphrey said. “So far, we are seeing the kids taking this very seriously,” he said. “And the parents seem to be stepping up, too.”
The Gun Court came about as a way to help curb violent crime in Mobile, by reaching out to youthful offenders before they go on to commit more serious crimes. Research suggests the more contact you have with a child and parent during an initial probationary period involving a gun charge, Humphrey said, the lower the recidivism rate for those children later in life.
“The younger you can reach them, the better,” Humphrey said. “Because we can help them develop some ideas about what is acceptable and what is not at a younger age. It also helps to have parental involvement.”
The Gun Court probation is an alternative to youthful offenders being locked up in what is commonly called a state school with the Alabama Department of Youth Services (DYS). Participants who take part in the Mobile County Juvenile Gun Court and violate their probation must suffer the consequences just as any other child on probation would. Depending on the nature and severity of the offense, the child is typically placed back at Mobile’s Strickland Youth Center so a judge can decide the next step.
“We want to see fewer juvenile gun crimes,” Humphrey said. “If we can save one life, that’s worth everything.”
Naman, a father of two serving a second term as a juvenile judge in Mobile County, said he sees young people stand before him every week who genuinely regret their crimes and want to make better choices. “A lot of our kids instantly, in most situations, feel bad about what they did,” Naman said. “A child with a gun is just a horrible accident waiting to happen.”
Serving as a juvenile judge in Mobile, Naman has become increasingly aware of the high number of violent crimes committed along the Gulf Coast by children and adults. There was a time in late 2008 and early 2009, Naman said, when he was having trouble sleeping at night because of a string of violent crimes plaguing his hometown.
“We clearly lead the state in violent crimes,” he said last week. “We have such a breakdown in families. There’s no guidance going on with many of them.”
A few years back, Naman was at a state meeting where juvenile and adult crime statistics for five large metro areas in Alabama — Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa — were distributed. And while the number of youth crimes had dropped drastically in Mobile between 2007 and 2010, according to Mobile County police reports, the number of violent crimes for Mobile County remained far higher than any of the other areas in the state. In some cases, Mobile County’s juvenile crime numbers were higher than several of the numbers for other cities combined.
“I knew we had a problem,” Naman said.
In 2012, FBI crime reports showed the homicide rate for Mobile was 12 per 100,000 residents, as compared to 8.2 per 100,000 residents for the state. The violent crime rate in Mobile in 2012 by far surpassed state totals: The rate of violent crime was 553 per 100,000 residents in Mobile County in 2012, while the average for the state was 73 per 100,000 residents, crime data indicated.
As early as 2008, Naman began personally conducting informal research about who was committing violent crimes among juveniles, trying to pinpoint what he and the courts could do to break the cycle of criminal activity among the most at-risk groups. Eventually, Naman also tasked the University of South Alabama with conducting more scientific research to back up his own assertions. What they discovered was troubling, Naman said.
The most serious juvenile offenders who came before him were between the ages of 12 and 16, they were typically one of five siblings living in a household that earned $15,000 or less annually, Naman said. More than 90 percent of the juveniles committing the worst crimes in Mobile County are from single-parent homes with no father present. Only one of 26 of the most serious juvenile offenders in 2009 came from a home with both parents present.
“A lot of these kids are angry and lost and looking for some kind of guidance,” Naman said. “They are good kids. They are highly impulsive. It’s not that they have evil intent.”
Alabama ranks near the bottom in a variety of indicators that measure quality-of-life for young people and their families. More than one in four children — 27.6 percent — in Alabama live at or below Federal Poverty Guidelines, U.S. Census figures show. There are more than 1,320 children living in juvenile residential facilities in Alabama, according to the 2013 Children’s Defense Fund report. In Mobile, there are typically no less than 1,000 children on probation through Mobile County Juvenile Court, Naman said.
The creation of the Gun Court is one example, Naman said, of how he and his staff are working to curb violent crime before it happens: “We are trying to address the real problems in the community and handle it with those who present a real danger. We are really being proactive before it explodes.”
One thing Naman has noticed personally, and what research suggests, is that once a child has been charged with a gun-related offense at a young age, they are much more likely to commit a more violent crime in the future. “The very next time we see them,” Naman said, “then it often explodes into something very serious.”
The new Gun Court is just one example of how Mobile County Juvenile Court is trying to stem the tide of youth crime and violence among young residents. The juvenile court led by Naman also has partnered with staff at The Bridge, a local drug and alcohol abuse treatment center; the court also is supporting a local faith-based mentoring initiative and has created a partnership with the national Casey Foundation for an alternative sentencing program to help children make better choices. Naman also leads the Children’s Policy Council, a group of local representatives from groups who serve children and their families in Mobile County and beyond.
Besides his role as a judge, Naman said, he believes in supporting at-risk children, especially those who might not have another positive role model within their homes.
“We’re trying to build them up,” he said. “It’s all really about encouragement. I tell them, ‘We are going to help you get a job. We are going to stand up for you.’ We have expectations for them to stay out of trouble. We’ve had some really good outcomes.”