Juvenile justice overhaul sees no quick fix

ATLANTA -- A commission of judges, legislators, cops and lawyers wound up Tuesday’s meeting with more questions than answers in its quest to overhaul the way Georgia handles misbehaving minors.


The commission is following up its work last year that led to sentencing reforms for adults by looking at ways to improve the effectiveness of the state’s system of dealing with 40,000 juvenile delinquents each year. It is working with consultants who are gathering information at the commission’s request.

Tuesday, consultant Kristy Danford recounted what she learned from interviewing workers in the juvenile system and how they use various questionnaires to predict the likelihood that individual teens or children are dangerous or likely to commit another crime. For the average kid in the system, it comes down to a coin toss, but the commission wants to improve those odds.

Danford warned that getting change is a slow process.

“It’s really hard work. It’s more of a marathon. You don’t just flip a switch,” she told them.

Commission Co-Chairman Mike Boggs, a former legislator and Waycross judge who now sits on the Georgia Court of Appeals, said any reforms would depend on sending each youthful offender to the right program based on their risk.

“Everything we’re considering depends on the validity of those assessments,” he said.

Jason Newman, a consultant with the Pew Center on the States, said more research was needed to determine which assessment questionnaires the various courts use.

Other commissioners raised concern that students are being sent to the juvenile system for minor offenses that schools used to take care of with paddling.

“I’m asking this question at the risk of sounding like a terrible throwback, a hopeless redneck,” said Ken Shigley, president of the State Bar of Georgia.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske noted that the number of students in his county sent to the juvenile courts for disorderly conduct and school fights ballooned after police officers were assigned to schools.

“We know from the research that if you arrest a kid on campus, he’s twice as likely not to graduate. If they appear in court, they’re four times as likely not to graduate,” he said. “... It’s a toxic stressor when you’ve got a kid who’s 13 years old and you put him in the back of a patrol car.”

While the commission waits more research from its consultants, its members will break into committees to explore topics in detail. It has to wind up its work with recommendations to the governor and legislature by year end.

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