Opinion: Bring criminal justice reform to youth

(AJC File photo)
(AJC File photo)

The AJC’s new investigation into Georgia’s juvenile justice apparatus should lead to changes that make the public safer.

There has to be a better way. That should be the inescapable conclusion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigation, “Juvenile Justice in Georgia.”

This newspaper’s reporting spotlights a system that is as outdated in its approach as it is ineffective in safeguarding the public, or the youths remanded to its custody.

While this nation, and Georgia, have taken steps toward reforming the adult criminal justice system, this state’s apparatus for juvenile justice remains lodged in a time warp.

We have to do better. It’s our hope that the AJC’s reporting can help start needed conversations and work towards revamping the corner of the justice system intended to rehabilitate youthful criminals, in hopes of preventing their subsequent adult-style incarceration.

Making headway in this necessary work will be tough. Especially so in a harshly divided America and Georgia. There’s a strong, traditional mindset here and elsewhere that crime, particularly violent offenses, demands strong punishment .

That eye-for-an-eye belief was behind Georgia’s hardening of the juvenile justice system two decades ago. What resulted was the most-punitive juvenile justice system in the nation, one where offenders as young as 13 could be charged as adults and imprisoned for decades.

The end result might surprise many. Despite throwing the book at juvenile offenders, youths commit roughly the same proportion of violent crimes in Georgia today as they did a quarter-century ago.

It’s time now to revamp that philosophy, we believe.

Our plea for juvenile justice reforms does not come from any naive sentiment for coddling young criminals – especially not violent ones. Being in the business of news, we understand full well that the world and Georgia are often a violent place. That is part of the reason we began the first installment of our series with a recitation of events that authorities allege culminated in a murder which drew widespread attention for its seeming senselessness and callousness.

The flawed journey of accused killer Jayden Myrick through Georgia’s juvenile justice system exemplifies just how badly our methods have frequently failed to successfully redirect troubled youths away from delinquency. As a result, innocent people have been harmed, or killed. As the AJC reported last week, “Myrick’s case and dozens of others shows that juvenile justice in Georgia is at once too lenient and too harsh, barely holding many youths accountable even for repeated offenses before confining them in brutal, chaotic juvenile prisons when their crimes turn more menacing.”

We have to change that. As adult criminal justice reform gained energy, proponents sometimes summed up their reasoning by saying society should better distinguish between offenders we just didn’t like based on their behavior, and those we were legitimately afraid of. The former could often be redirected away from crime, the thinking goes. Doing that would save room and resources to lock away the worst incorrigible criminals. As we’ve said before on this page, that philosophy has merit.

And it seems to make sense for the juvenile justice system, especially since a primary goal has historically been to rehabilitate troubled youths before they become worse problems for society.

Yet, there will be no easy, quick or cheap fixes for this dangerous problem. In part that is because of societal failures which, taken together, have enabled conditions that produce the Jayden Myricks of the world.

We all know this list, even if we disagree on the causes — or remedies. Leading it are widespread, extreme poverty, untreated mental illness, drug abuse and fracturing of families and community institutions that once nurtured and provided structure for at-risk youth. Also factoring in heavily are juvenile prisons that often provide violent finishing schools for criminality, routinely endangering youths and corrections staff in the process.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and the courts lack the resources, coordinated strategy and tactics to comprehensively attack these shortcomings. As a result, too many people become crime victims. We must work to change that.

No one with any sense would suggest that the need to lock up at times high-risk, violent juvenile offenders will magically, or quickly, disappear thanks to high-minded reforms. It is equally illogical and unrealistic to believe that Georgia’s current system is doing an adequate job of keeping us safe. This newspaper’s reporting shows the opposite is true.

Georgia must thus begin working toward substantial, comprehensive overhaul of its juvenile justice apparatus.

The state has taken an encouraging step toward that goal by naming last July a new Commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Tyrone Oliver seems a pragmatic, grounded leader, based on his comments to our reporters. He says he’s willing to bring charges against low-paid guards who abuse or assault incarcerated youth. Our reporting showed charges have been exceedingly rare, even when guards were fired for misbehavior.

Oliver also seems cognizant of the fact that juvenile detention centers, like adult prisons, are dangerous places where official use of force cannot always be avoided. A key to his success will be maintaining a balance of interest in safeguarding both officers and incarcerated delinquents.

Clayton County’s Second Chance Court also seems a promising initiative. It deemphasizes incarceration in favor of close supervision, counseling and, yes, compassion toward youth. The results are encouraging: the number of juveniles in detention has been cut by two-thirds and recidivism is far lower than the statewide average.

Georgia will need strategies like this to improve our juvenile justice system. That will require sufficient resources, from government as well as charitable and community entities. For reform to work, society must enhance ways to support – or even act in the stead of – families of troubled youth. That is no small necessity to achieve.

Making Georgia a safer place demands nothing less.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.