Senate approves juvenile justice reforms

The Georgia Senate Thursday signed off on a sweeping rewrite of the laws that govern how the state treats juveniles who run afoul of the law, another milestone in the state’s two-year effort to reserve expensive prison bed space in both the adult and juvenile systems for the most violent offenders.

The 248-page bill, which the Senate adopted unanimously, must go back to the House for approval of changes. That’s expected to happen, as is getting the signature of the governor, who led the effort to review prison sentencing in Georgia.

The bill is a rewrite of the entire Georgia juvenile code — which also addresses adoptions, parental rights and children who are neglected or abused. However, the focus on House Bill 242 as it moved through the legislative process has been on aspects of the bill that address the juvenile justice system — those who commit aggravated assaults and armed robberies as well as those accused of misdemeanors and status offenses like running away or skipping school.

Advocates say the reforms could save taxpayers $88 million over five years by diverting the less dangerous juveniles into community-based programs instead of locking them up at a cost to taxpayers of $247 a day or $90,000 a year for each kid. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, has said the reform also would mean Georgia would not have to build two more secure facilities to accommodate the growing number of juvenile offenders in state custody.

“You are doing something today that is worthy. We are going to take steps that will make Georgia a better state to live in,” said Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, one of the lawmakers who handle legislation pushed by the governor.

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 of their ages. So-called status offenders — truants, runaways and the unruly — would be assigned to social service programs to address the reasons behind their offenses. Parents also would be required to participate in counseling offered by the various programs that already exist.

According to research that was the basis for the legislation, 65 percent of the teenagers who are locked up for violent as well as minor offenses will commit another crime within three years. The community-based programs, which are for kids who are not dangerous, report recidivism rates of less than 10 percent.

“This is a comprehensive rewrite of the juvenile code that’s been needed for a very long time,” said Sharon Hill, executive director at Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which was among 100 advocacy groups pushing for the changes. “It’s been 42 years since we’ve had this type of rewrite. We are very, very happy.”

The changes the Senate made were to address concerns by juvenile judges about when the bill would take effect; on Jan. 1 instead of July 1 to allow more time to set up programs. District attorneys also wanted to have options concerning who prosecutes these cases, so the change is that prosecutions also could be handled by solicitors who already prosecute misdemeanors in state courts or by practice lawyers named as special prosecutors.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he would offer $5 million for pilot programs like day reporting centers that offer counseling for the teenager and the parents, instruction on life skills and guidance for changing the way the kids react to the world.

There are fewer than 700 children housed at Georgia’s youth development campuses, which are akin to adult prisons, and 1,100 children in the regional youth detention centers, which hold children who have been charged but not yet adjudicated. Of those, around 40 are locked up for status offenses.