Juvenile justice reforms to take effect in Georgia on New Year’s Day

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Juvenile justice reforms to take effect in Georgia on New Year’s Day

Georgia’s juvenile justice laws will undergo sweeping reforms on New Year’s Day, even as some judges, prosecutors and counties express doubts about how the revamped system will work.

Teenage runaways and truants will no longer be locked up. Neither will juveniles who commit misdemeanors and certain felonies. Detention is to be replaced with community-based programs funded with state and federal grants.

Georgia joined a national shift away from prison to using alternatives such as community-based programs and special courts as ways of dealing with crime when the 2012 Legislature adopted recommendations from a commission Gov. Nathan Deal appointed. Then the 2013 Legislature approved the panel’s proposed historic reforms for the juvenile justice system.

Now it’s up to the local governments and courts to make it succeed.

“We’re working to get things set up but nobody knows (how it will work),” said Gwinnett County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus. “We’ve thrown 60 years of case law and precedent out the window.”

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter, who was on the committee that drafted the reforms, said the concept is a good one.

“Saying you’re against it is like saying you’re against Santa Claus,” Porter said. “Nobody wants kids locked up.”

But that doesn’t mean change will come easily. “If we don’t implement it right and if we don’t utilize the savings to have the programs that actually can divert kids from confinement, it will be a disaster,” Porter said.

Georgia juveniles who commit misdemeanors and certain felonies will go to community-based programs designed to get to the root of their problems — alcohol and drug abuse, a dysfunctional family, anger issues or a lack of basic life skills.

But the dilemma everywhere, judges and prosecutors say, is that there are teenagers who need to be locked away from society — youths who are impulsive, violent and, in some cases, beyond help.

“Even the high and aggravated (crimes) — like you hit a teacher but you don’t leave a mark — they won’t serve any time” under Georgia’s new system, said Ocmulgee Circuit Assistant District Attorney Joseph McKinnon, the sole prosecutor in juvenile courts in eight Middle Georgia counties. “Disrupting a school is not a felony. Simple assault on a school official is not a felony. So they won’t have to go to jail for that.”

That could send a bad message, McKinnon said. “The word’s going to get out (to juvenile offenders) on the street … ‘all we’re going to get is probation.’”

“The expectation of what we can do to juveniles and reality is very, very different,” he said.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, who was on the commission that proposed the reforms, said the goal is to lock up the kids who “scare” judges, not the youths who exasperate the court because they repeatedly do knuckle-headed things.

Along with the argument that diverting kids from state custody meant saving lives, money was a selling point for remaking the system.

It costs state taxpayers $247 per day to incarcerate one youthful offender, according to the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. Putting only the most dangerous teens in the state’s 640 long-term and 950 short-term secure beds was advertised as a way to save the state $88 million over the next five years.

Yet even if the revamped system saves a mint, “anybody who says it’s not going to cost anything doesn’t understand,” Porter said.

In the past, there was no prosecutor in many juvenile courts, leaving that role to the police officer or school official who brought the case. But under the new system, a prosecutor will lay out for the judge the issues facing a juvenile and make the case for which youths can be diverted away from the justice system. Outside prosecutors will have to be hired to handle lower-level cases if the local district attorney’s office is focused on the more dangerous cases — a cost that will be borne by county taxpayers.

The Gwinnett juvenile system has requested funds for additional positions in probation and the clerk’s office, Rodatus said. “You’re talking about a couple of hundred thousand dollars the county is having to pay while the state is saving a lot of money,” the judge said.

Some county commissions have received requests for funding for additional prosecutors, public defenders and court staff.

But the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has told its members to hold off.

“I’ve told my folks we’re in for a roller-coaster ride over the next year,” said Debra Nesbit, the ACCG associate legislative director. “It’s a huge overhaul and there are going to be bumps in the road. I have told our folks to put money in reserve, and when the juvenile court can show you increased numbers in where they need additional resources, then allocate dollars.”

Last summer, $6 million in state and federal grants was allocated to pay for programs that should reduce the number of kids sent to state custody by 20 percent.

Only a fraction of Georgia’s 159 counties received grants, mostly courts in urban areas. But about 70 percent of Georgia’s teenagers live in those areas, so advocates say most of the state’s at-risk kids will have access to community-based programs.

“The real problem is there are some places in this state where there are no programs,” Rodatus said.

For example, the Ocmulgee Circuit in Middle Georgia got $80,000 for a community-based program. But there is no public transportation in that eight-county rural circuit — a problem for youths who don’t drive, have access to a car, or have someone they can count on to drive them to an appointment.

Some troubled teens will need experts who can only be found in larger cities. For example, there is no licensed psychiatrist in the four South Georgia counties in the Cordele Judicial Circuit.

“So how do you get them services?” Porter asked. “Have them drive (an hour and a half north) to Macon?”

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