Georgia tries to steer more juveniles toward help

For decades, the treatment of juvenile offenders has been uneven across Georgia’s counties. And the state violates federal law by locking up too many status offenders — kids who have committed offenses that are not crimes for adults, such as frequently running away or skipping school.

A proposal to overhaul Georgia’s juvenile justice system that has passed the House and is expected to be before the Senate this week could be a way to deal with these issues.

Cost is one incentive to make a change: When a status offender is confined, it costs $247 for each day.

But there’s also the long-term view. One of the goals of House Bill 242 is to treat status offenders not as criminals, but as children in need of services. Parents and guardians would be required to participate in prescribed programs as well.

“Those resources are not plentiful (at this time), and they are not as local as they need to be,” said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

But where they are in place, they can make a difference.

R.L. got a life-changing break when he came to the attention of the juvenile court in Newton County.

In another county, R.L. very well could have been locked up by now, considering his long history in the juvenile court system. He first ran away from home when he was 12 and eventually started fighting at school and with his father. Instead, the now-15-year-old reports after school every day to a cinder block building where he and other teenagers spend the next four hours learning to control their emotions and to deal with dysfunctions at home.

“Me and my dad couldn’t sit in the same room,” R.L. said of the years before he started at the Newton County evening reporting center. His mother is in prison for drug trafficking.

“It’s still bumpy” at home, he said.

But it’s much better.

Few programs such as this exist in Georgia. But the hope is that juvenile justice reform making its way through the General Assembly and $5 million the governor has said he wants to spend will be the impetus for steering more low-risk juvenile offenders away from detention and into community-based programs.

Not only would such programs redirect some would-be adult criminals, but taxpayers could save up to $88 million over the next five years.

Federal dollars that passed through the Governor’s Office for Families and Children as grants have already funded 11 local programs for status offenders. There are also a few grant-funded programs for other low-risk offenders involved with drugs or alcohol or who have committed serious crimes but could still be saved.

“Status offenders present a particular challenge because they are engaging in behavior that courts want to intervene in and stop because that (behavior) puts the child in danger,” Carter said. “We can go really wrong by these kids by not getting the intervention correct. All the research tells us (that) when you have too harsh an intervention, it increases their recidivism.”

Also, Carter said, truants and runaways locked up with the more dangerous juveniles often come out of their detention worse than when they went in. First, they are exposed to dangerous juveniles who continue to be violent while locked up. But they also sometimes succumb to peer pressure, learning new attitudes and adopting a delinquent lifestyle.

Federal law prohibits putting status offenders in secure lockups, but Georgia does it anyway, risking the loss of grant money. Federal rules say money can be withheld if a state locks up 20 percent of its status offenders, and so far the highest Georgia has gotten was 14 percent.

“They want us to be in compliance with federal law,” said Newton Juvenile Court Judge Sheri Roberts. “Unless you’ve developed programs, there is nothing out there.”

Status offenders are a very small segment of the criminal justice system. This past week, only 43 out of about 1,700 teenagers in the state’s short- and long-term lockups were status offenders who cost $247 for each day each one is confined. In comparison, advocates point out, community-based program costs range from $1 a day to $77 a day for the most intensive approaches.

There are payoffs in human terms as well. According to state data, almost 70 percent of the kids locked up, even status offenders, will return to the juvenile justice system. The various local programs around the state report recidivism rates of 9 percent or less.

L.R. was a status offender, having been declared unruly and a runaway and eventually locked up for a year and a month. But so far, she has been the exception and did not learn bad lessons while at the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center in southeast Atlanta.

Troubles with her mother started when she was 10 and got worse as she got older. Arguments would be followed with L.R. running away or the mother telling her daughter to leave.

“I became a little rebellious and a little rude and disrespectful,” said L.R., now 20.

At 12, the state took her from her mother and gave custody to her father, a man she had not seen since she was 8. She continued to run away until eventually a Fulton County Juvenile Court judge decided she should be sent to a youth detention center.

“I was happier than I had ever been,” L.R. said of her time locked up. “I was away from (her mother’s) household … and I was away from my father (whom) I didn’t really know. There were some inspirational women there who worked with us. I had a lot of closure because people listened to me.”

If HB 242 becomes law, the solution for juveniles such as L.R. would never be to lock them up but to help them instead.

“We’re going to need to expand services for these children. … You can put your money in the playpen or you can put your money in the state pen,” said Rockdale County Juvenile Court Judge William Schneider.

The public seems to agree.

According to a Pew Charitable Trust survey, 90 percent of Georgians want only higher-risk, dangerous juveniles locked up and the others put into programs that will teach them to think differently, give them skills and help them navigate their family dynamics.

And taxpayers would see a savings of $88 million over five years if HB 242 becomes law.

Ben Miller — a juvenile court judge in Fayette, Spalding, Pike and Upson counties — thinks it’s best to keep status offenders out of secure lockups, but he foresees problems in circuits that have no services.

“If there is a total prohibition, I’m not sure what I could do,” Miller said. “If I can’t detain them to protect them, it’s going to become a revolving door, I’m afraid.”

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