Some juvenile court judges feel left out of reforms


Some juvenile court judges feel left out of reforms

Alternatives to lock up

Here are some of the goals of the juvenile justice overhaul signed into law this year that could save Georgia $85 million over five years.

Divert nonviolent youth to alternative programs instead of incarcerating them. About one-fourth of incarcerated juveniles are there for misdemeanors or minor offenses like truancy.

Implement better risk-assessment tools. The state is locking up too many juveniles not likely to become repeat offenders.

Create more community based programs as an alternative to incarceration. Parts of Georgia lack such alternatives, leaving incarceration as the only choice for judges.

Locked up

Nearly 5,300 truants, runaways and unruly juveniles have been locked up in a state facility since 2004. They are called status offenders, as they have committed offenses that are crimes only because they are juveniles. An example is truancy. Below are the number of status offenders locked up in Georgia.

2004 — 632

2005 — 807

2006 — 740

2007 — 691

2008 — 640

2009 — 547

2010 — 431

2011 — 431

2012 — 362

Source: Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has chronicled the problems plaguing Georgia’s juvenile justice system for years. In a series of articles last year, the newspaper exposed the system’s struggles with inadequate staffing, violent conditions and children locked behind bars for relatively minor offenses. The AJC will continue to closely follow how Georgia punishes its youngest criminals.

Repairing Georgia’s juvenile justice system will be a lot rougher than expected.

Some judges interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution applauded the concept behind changes the Legislature passed this year. But they’re confused about the rules and anxious about losing detention as a threat for the kids who simply refuse to cooperate. And they don’t have the money.

“A lot of that is unplowed ground so I’m not sure who is in charge of running the ship,” said Judge Benjamin Brinson, one of three part-time judges assigned to the six-county Atlantic Circuit in southeast Georgia.

The goal of the overhaul, to take effect Jan. 1, is to address home lives or addictions that are at the root of a juvenile’s problems with the law and lock up only the most dangerous.

The idea is to “catch the kids and get these services in place way before they are standing in front of the judge” with a felony charge, said Joe Vignati, administrator of the justice division of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families. The key is to use assessments that will help identify the kids who can be saved as well as those who are unlikely to be saved.

Turning them away from the path toward prison is where the state would ultimately save money, as much as $85 million over five years, according to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office.

Sixty-five percent of teenage offenders are back in the juvenile or adult criminal justice system within three years of being released. To redirect them, the governor set aside $5 million in state money and another $1 million in federal funds for “evidence-based” programs that research has shown to be successful elsewhere in dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, anger and life skills. Applications for those monies are due later this month. The money will be dispersed beginning Aug. 1.

But only courts in 12 to 18 of Georgia’s 159 counties stand to get a piece of the $6 million. Smaller counties feel left behind. There’s not enough for all.

“I’m offended that they proposed … to provide grant funding for counties when there are only a select few who will get the funding,” said Oconee County Juvenile Court Judge Sara McArthur.

“Only a few counties are getting this money and that’s my beef with the whole thing. It was astounding when it (became) clear if you had small (state) commitment or detention numbers, you were not getting the money.”

Juvenile judges don’t have to participate, either. Courts that don’t set up programs face no penalties. They can just keep doing what they are doing, though they will be more limited in how long a kid can be locked up.

“It’s not a ‘stick.’ It’s a ‘carrot,’ ” said Vignati. “If we get enough courts that agree and choose to go this route, there is opportunity for more funding in the future … It’s worked in other states. We’re excited bout it. Here’s an opportunity to get these services that your community needs. If folks just wait and trust in the process, I think it’s going to be OK. It’s going to work out well.”

The rewritten law prohibits judges from locking up truants, runaways and the unruly, and those kids will be sent to existing social services programs. The most dangerous young offenders will continue to be sent to state lock-ups, but for less time than they are now.

New programs the law envisions, such as counseling, substance abuse treatment or classes on life skills and anger management would be aimed at those in between those extremes: trespassers, burglars and drug offenders, for example.

Many counties won’t qualify for grants to pay for those programs, and the little they collect in court-imposed fees is not enough.

In blogs where many judges candidly expressed their thoughts, one theme is that the state has shifted to the counties its burden for watching out for “trouble and troubled” kids, a label used often by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the author of House Bill 242, which made the changes.

To receive the grant money, a court would have to adopt a plan to reduce commitments to state facilities by 20 percent. Oconee County could meet the 20 percent threshold by sending just one less kid to state custody, but the benefit for just one teen would make the high cost of a new program hard to justify.

Since the future funding is “dependent on reducing the number of commitments (to state custody) it creates an ethical problem for those judges receiving that funding,” McArthur said.

Brinson agreed. “I did not feel comfortable,” he said. “I either would have to make a decision that would hurt the county or not benefit the child.”

He said, “What the Governor’s Office has done, I think in the long-run will help the system. But it will be hard up-front. I know what they are trying to do and what they need to do.”

Until last year, Oconee was one of many counties that received a $7,000 grant — now discontinued — that paid for counseling, psychological testing and substance abuse evaluations.

Now McArthur is covering those costs with supervision fees and depending on private insurance or public health programs such as Medicaid to cover the costs of local treatment programs.

“Kids without insurance are the ones hardest hit,” McArthur said.

For several years, Judge Mary Carden’s court in Dawson County used a $7,000 grant from the state to pay for several programs, but last year that grant was cancelled. Consequently, Carden wrote personal checks for $150 six months in a row to cover the cost of a weekend program for kids in need of a little more supervision. But everything else, except for basic probation and community service, had to stop in Dawson County.

“We’re trying to keep things going but it’s hard,” Carden said.

She said the needs of Hall and Dawson, though in the same circuit, are too different for the smaller county to piggyback on the larger one and the needs of Dawson are not significant enough to justify the cost of an “evidence-based” program that is on the approved list for new funding.

“The cost for those programs are exorbitant,” Carden said. “There are none … for under $100,000 a year. These programs are big-deal programs. ”

One company charges $98 a day to run an evening reporting program for a nonviolent juveniles awaiting court. Another charges $295 for each person it trains to run support groups for 9- to 18-year-old girls. Another bills $495 for each person it trains to lead group and individual programs for teenage drug addicts and alcoholics. One provider listed a fee of $8,400 for in-home therapy for juveniles and the parents.

“We don’t have the money,” said Brinson, the judge in the Atlantic Judicial Circuit.

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