Georgia House approves juvenile justice overhaul

After a brief presentation and no questions, the House on Thursday unanimously approved a rewrite of the state’s laws governing children, those in trouble with the law and those who are neglected or abused.

While House Bill 242 would rewrite and streamline the entire juvenile code, emphasis during hearings on the 247-page measure and when it was presented to legislators has focused on the changes to the juvenile justice system and the lives and money it could save.

“HB 242 changes the face of juvenile justice in Georgia by targeting the kids that scare us and changing the kids that make us mad (by) using programs that work,” said Steve Teske, the chief judge in Clayton County’s juvenile court. “The legislation will save taxpayers millions that will be reinvested in the community to help troubled kids and reduce juvenile crime.”

The legislation still has to pass the Senate, but with the backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, it is expected to win support when the upper chamber considers it.

“What it means for kids is it really helps us take kids out of the detention centers and put them on a much clearer path to the future,” said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, an organization made up of the entities advocating for the changes.

The proposed overhaul of the juvenile justice system mirrors some of the changes made in the adult system last year. They include using more community-based programs that would focus on the reasons an offender has turned to crime instead of using expensive prison beds for punishment.

On Thursday, there were 688 children housed at Georgia’s youth development campuses, which are akin to adult prisons, and 1,141 children in the regional youth detention centers, which hold children who have been charged but not yet adjudicated. The annual cost for each juvenile locked up is $90,000, said Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican from Sandy Springs and sponsor of the bill.

“You can put a child through the finest college in the country for less than that,” Willard said.

If juvenile judges have more resources, Willard said, the taxpayers would save almost $85 million in five years. He said the state also would not have to build two residential juvenile facilities now expected to be needed to accommodate the increasing number of juvenile offenders ordered locked up.

The governor has offered $5 million for pilot programs developed by the courts. And any savings from diverting juvenile offenders away from a state lockup would be returned to the courts to spend on more community-based programs.

“I call this approach the redirect by reinvest,” said Teske, a member of the commission that made recommendations that were put in the bill.

Under the existing system,Teske said, judges don’t have the “resources to keep kids out of prison who don’t need to be there.” He said the cycle continues and the cost to taxpayers and the safety to the community increase because juveniles often leave a secure facility “more violent.”

The bill divides the list of the 32 most serious offenses — or designated felonies — into two classes. A teenager could be locked up for up to five years if someone is harmed. But if no one is injured, the punishment would be no more than 18 months in a lockup, followed by another 1 1/2 years on intensive probation.

The bill also would prohibit locking up kids accused of offenses that are crimes only because they are under age 18. So-called status offenders — kids who skip school, run away or are unruly — would be assigned to social service programs to address the reasons behind their offenses.

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