Panel endorses overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system

A massive bill that would turn everything upside down in Georgia’s juvenile justice system passed its first legislative hurdle Tuesday: a committee vote.

The 244-page bill would cut the number of child offenders housed in detention centers and create community-based programs to address the problems that led the youngster to crime. It’s also expected to save the state tens of millions of dollars per year.

The legislation is a reversal of an approach to get tough on “young thugs” — as Gov. Zell Miller called them — that began in the 1990s, a period when laws were adopted with significant time for all criminals, no matter their ages.

“The way we’re doing things now is not good for the children, so we’re altering those programs,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “It can’t be done overnight, but there will be steps taken incrementally.”

Willard is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which passed House Bill 242 on Tuesday.

About 65 percent of the children that now leave Georgia’s juvenile justice system come back or are convicted as adults within three years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Willard wants that to change. He and his many supporters want to see fewer children locked up and instead participate in community-based programs that would address the personal problems that led them to crime.

“We’re looking at making the future of that child better and brighter and not putting them in detention where they would be more likely exposed to things they shouldn’t be exposed to,” he said.

Like savings promised in last year’s fixes to the adult corrections system, the hope is HB 242 will save about $88 million over the next five years. The expectation is that each year 640 children — truants, kids caught drinking, runaways and those accused of misdemeanors — will be sent to community-based programs instead of high-security lockups.

Some of these would be intense probationary programs that would keep children busy and out of trouble, Willard said. A child might go straight from school to one of these programs where counselors and tutors would work with them until it was nearly time for bed.

The most dangerous juveniles would still be placed in youth development campuses, which are akin to prisons for adults.

“We’re not plowing new ground here,” Willard said. “There have been programs like this done in Ohio, Louisiana, Texas, and they’ve seen great results.”

Kirsten Widner agrees: It’s time for Georgia to catch up. Widner is the director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

“(This bill) really brings Georgia much more in line with national best practices for how to deal with abused, neglected and court-involved children,” she said.

It would take a while to see the results from some of the provisions, she said, but others would have an immediate impact.

“Improving procedural process, while it doesn’t sound very sexy, can really make a big difference for kids right away,” Widner said.

One key part of the proposed overhaul is to do an assessment of a how likely a juvenile is to commit more crimes, what their mental health issues are and what programs might help them and their families before they are committed into state custody.

So far, all the stakeholders seem to be on board for the proposed changes to the system.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, the state’s prosecutors, county commissioners, judges and dozens of advocates have complimented each other on a job well done that, they say, could save young lives that otherwise would be lost to crime while also saving Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars.

But even with the governor’s endorsement, the HB 242 has a long way to go before becoming law. Next stop, the House Rules Committee.

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