State reforms could give options to wayward teens

Lawmakers in this traditionally tough-on-crime state approved a sweeping rewrite of Georgia’s rigid sentencing laws a year ago, allowing more nonviolent adult offenders to avoid costly prison stints.

This session, the General Assembly will focus on the time many criminals become criminals – when they are juveniles.

The adult reforms were pushed in 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal, who argued Georgia needed more effective approaches that didn’t compromise public safety. The House and Senate responded with unanimous votes to pass the landmark legislation, and those changes are expected to save taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the next five years.

In Round 2 of criminal justice reform, lawmakers will consider changes to the state’s juvenile justice system, which costs $300 million a year but has had a poor success rate in keeping Georgia’s wayward teenagers from committing repeat offenses.

Among the key proposals will be financial incentives for counties to create community-based treatment programs for nonviolent juvenile offenders as alternatives to incarceration. Lawmakers also will consider creating two new classes of sentences for juveniles who commit any of the 30 so-called “designated felonies,” which ensure lengthy terms of incarceration. One class would give sentences of up to five years for juveniles who commit violent crimes while the other would provide punishments of no more than 18 months for nonviolent offenders.

In an interview Thursday, Deal said he anticipates the legislation, if enacted, “will do the same things for the juvenile justice system that reforms last year have done and will do for the adult system.”

Deal, who once served as a juvenile judge, said juvenile judges today have some of the same frustrations he had years ago on the bench.

“The main one was the lack of alternatives, without any real choice on a judge’s part,” Deal said. “You either turn them loose and send them back to the same home and the same environment which got them into trouble or you send them to a youth detention center. There was very little in between. What we’re trying to focus here in these reforms is to provide the in-between alternative.”

Last year, the state House passed a comprehensive rewrite Georgia’s juvenile justice laws, but the measure stalled in the Senate. At that time, the bill did not have the backing of Deal, who was pushing the adult reforms.

The adult reforms stemmed from recommendations by a special state criminal justice reform council composed largely of judges, lawmakers and law enforcement officials.

Those reforms, for example, allowed the lowest-risk nonviolent drug and property offenders to be diverted to community-based supervision programs such as drug courts. So far, they have had the desired impact: the state prison population has held steady and the number of inmates in local jails awaiting beds at probation detention centers has dropped, Department of Corrections data show.

After last year’s success, Deal reappointed the special council and charged it with examining Georgia’s juvenile system.

In December, the council released its findings. Among them:

  • Youth detention centers cost taxpayers more than $90,000 a bed per year, yet more than half the state's young offenders are returned to the juvenile justice system or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release.
  • About 38 percent of the juveniles in youth detention centers committed nonviolent offenses.
  • The state stands to save $88 million over the next five years if it can decrease by 639 the number of young offenders taken away from their homes and put in secured facilities.

The panel recommended that low-risk, nonviolent juveniles be diverted to group homes or community-based programs.

Sharon Hill, executive director of Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, which is a member of a coalition of about 60 groups pushing juvenile justice reform, praised the council’s recommendations.

“They are specific and important. And I’m sure, if we are able to implement them, they will save tax dollars and increase public safety,” said Hill, a former juvenile judge. “There could be some opportunity for cost savings at the county level and still help the judges to be able to have options that make a difference for kids and their families and get them on right path.”

Yet local government officials remain concerned about the costs to them if the reforms are adopted.

Last year, for example, district attorneys noted they are not required to be in juvenile court but the suggested changes said they must be there. The state’s public defender system would need about $5 million to represent juvenile offenders, and the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities would require another $8 million to comply with suggested changes, officials said last year.

“We’re not opposed to some of the concepts,” said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia. “We just need the funding.”

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a member of the special council, says the prospects of passage this year look good.

Willard, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he is aware of the cost of the proposed changes. “We believe in the long-run, it will be a cost-savings for the state and the counties,” he said.