State turns attention to juvenile justice reforms

A special state council today will recommend repairs for a juvenile justice system that spends $91,000 a year for each bed in its state detention centers.

Council members point to the enormous expense of incarcerating young offenders in a state “youth development campus,” or YDC, while producing poor results, as evidence that the system isn’t working.

“I think most people would agree that it’s unacceptable that we have a 65 percent recidivism rate for those youths released from YDCs when a YDC bed costs $91,000 a year,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, co-chairman of the state’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the council of experts earlier this year to study the state’s system for punishing young criminals and other facets of the justice system. The council is scheduled to meet today on its final slate of recommendations for the Georgia General Assembly.

“If we can get this right, we can have a chance to change a child’s trajectory,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “It will help all of us with public safety and help these children grow up to be productive citizens.”

There is precedent for making big changes in the state’s criminal justice system. The Legislature this year adopted a ground-breaking law that diverts nonviolent offenders from prison — part of a national sweep of reforms in law-and-order states seeking more effective approaches to sentencing. Deal pushed for the changes, which won strong bipartisan support at the Capitol and are projected to save about $264 million over five years.

As he signed that legislation into law, Deal said the state still had work to do. He appointed a new panel of judges, prosecutors and other experts to continue to study the justice system.

The council learned that locking up one juvenile offender for a year at a state youth development campus costs $91,126, compared with about $18,000 a year for an adult in a Georgia prison. (Part of the reason is the range of services the state offers to young offenders: The YDC must provide schooling, food, clothing, medical care and psychiatric services.)

The state’s YDCs have a poor success rate too, even though a significant number of those locked up in the facilities are nonviolent and considered low-risk.

The council has been studying alternatives to locking up young offenders that have been effective in other states and is expected to recommend that Georgia turn to similar alternatives.

“What we know is that what we have been doing in the past to reduce recidivism among the juvenile population hasn’t really been very successful,” Boggs said.

Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, praised the governor and members of the reform council for looking closely at the juvenile system. She cited 2011 data from the Pew Center on the States which found that 76 percent of juveniles on probation were considered low risks to re-offend. The same could be said for 40 percent of those placed in detention, she said.

“Overall, we’re looking at real low-risk populations,” Carter said. “And we’re giving them very intrusive interventions at a high cost to the state and with very poor outcomes.”

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said the research has shown that different juvenile judges are treating similar cases differently.

“I don’t expect our recommendations to be as sweeping as those adopted last year in House Bill 1176,” Porter said. “But I think we will have some good suggestions that should lead to some consistency in the disposition of juvenile cases.”

The council is expected to call for placing fewer juvenile offenders in detention, as well as creating a two-class system for certain felonies to differentiate less serious juvenile offenses from the most serious crimes. The council is expected to call for research-driven programs within the community that could be more effective than locking a child up.

For adults, the council is expected to recommend that the state continue to work on ways to supervise offenders who are released from prison after long sentences instead of just sending them straight to the community with no supervision.

The council is also expected to call on the state to offer some limited flexibility when it comes to mandatory minimum sentences, while also suggesting that Georgia monitor the results of its criminal justice reforms to make sure the changes are making the system more effective and efficient.