Juvenile cases on the rise: Court deals with population increase, alcohol problem

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A record number 2,192 cases were filed in the county&8217;s juvenile court system last year, and Chief Probation Officer John Miller places the blame squarely on student&8217;S use of drugs and alcohol.

&8220;Hands-down alcohol is our biggest problem,&8221; said Miller. &8220;I don&8217;t like the phrase &8216;drugs and alcohol&8217; because alcohol is our biggest drug problem. I&8217;ve buried more kids due to alcohol than all other drugs.&8221;

Last year marked the first time Shelby County eclipsed the 2,000 mark in number of cases in juvenile court. The previous record was 1,893 cases in 2005.


Despite the increase in volume, Miller said the percentage of teens using drugs in Shelby County isn&8217;t necessarily on the rise. Instead, he believes the increasing numbers are more likely the result of population shifts.

&8220;Juvenile crime is not on the increase,&8221; said Miller. &8220;Someone can take those numbers and misinterpret them. It&8217;s our county that is on the increase.&8221;

Miller said three of the most dramatic increases were in the number of minor in consumption of alcohol, DUI and misdemeanor marijuana charges.

&8220;Drugs are in every single one of our schools,&8221; said Miller, who stressed how important drug education and prevention programs are.

Miller also said drug use is pretty evenly distributed among race and class and that no part of the county is immune from the problem.

&8220;It&8217;s funny…there are no hot spots,&8221; said Miller. &8220;Sometimes upper-class kids are more difficult to reach because they have so much disposable money and even carry credit cards.&8221;

Donna Dickson, student services coordinator for Shelby County Schools, said programs such as DARE and Project Alert educate kids against the dangers of drugs as early as the fifth grade.

According to Dickson, students found with drugs or alcohol on school property or school sanctioned trips are referred to an alternative school and are subject to possible juvenile court charges.

In Shelby County, high schools give mandatory drug tests to athletes, cheerleaders and band members. Also, any student who parks on school property can be randomly tested.

Dickson said the tests serve as a &8220;prevention tools&8221; that ensure teens steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

&8216;Not bad kids&8217;

Miller said most teens who come through his office just need a little direction and guidance.

&8220;We don&8217;t deal with a lot of bad kids. We deal with kids who make a lot of bad choices,&8221; said Miller. &8220;My best defense is to be honest with them, not judge them, and allow them to see what the consequences of their actions will be.&8221;

Miller said Shelby County is a great place to live and that peer pressure and curiosity are at the root of most of the county&8217;s cases.

&8220;We have mostly kids who are experimenters, not addicts,&8221; said Miller. &8220;And if you get to them with the right approach, you can get them to change.&8221;

New officers

Miller expects to hire two new probate officers by the end of the week.

Currently, the county&8217;s 10 officers juggle between 55-82 cases at once, much higher than the ideal of 25 to 30.

&8220;We&8217;ve always said that maintaining 40 cases would be acceptable,&8221; said Miller.

However, the new hires aren&8217;t in response to an increase in the number of cases, but instead the product a state formula. Alabama gives counties one probate officer for every 15,000 people who live in a county.

&8220;The new officers are due to an increase in population, not an increase in cases,&8221; said Miller.

Although the new officers will help tremendously, Miller said, caseloads will still be higher than desired and unless the state changes it&8217;s funding formula, Shelby County will have to make do what the current staff.

&8220;We&8217;ve tried every method there is to balance these cases,&8221; said Miller