ATLANTA — Georgia legislators next month will consider a major restructuring of laws dealing with children who commit crimes and those who just misbehave, reforms that supporters say will lower the repeat-crime rate and save taxpayers money.
A commission recommended shifting responsibility for most children in the juvenile justice system to county governments, where they will be dealt with while living at home. The state’s lockup facilities will be reserved for those who are violent or considered the most likely to break the law again.
For Georgians wondering how well the reforms will work, there is the example of Texas, which instituted them five years ago.
Georgia’s motivation for change is simply the desire to save money. Locking up a juvenile costs $90,000 annually, which is more than an adult prisoner costs.
Five years ago, the number of Texas youths locked up in state-run detention centers was about 4,700. Since then, the number has steadily dropped to fewer than 1,500.
The juvenile crime rate has decreased significantly, according to Jeanette Moll, a juvenile justice policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Arrests fell from 141,000 in 2005 to 116,000 in 2010, an 18 percent decrease.
Thanks to those lower numbers, the state has saved about $200 million.
Texas’ major reforms included changing a law that automatically sent youngsters convicted of misdemeanors to state lockups, which is one of the recommendations of the Georgia commission as well.
Despite the progress, the system is still dealing with serious problems.
For instance, the youths tend to fight more or lash out at facility employees, said Bill Monroe, the senior director of finance and technology at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
For Michelle Deitch, other problems are just as worrisome.
“Youth-on-youth violence is still high, and the (guards’) use of pepper spray is unacceptably high,” said Deitch, a juvenile system expert at the LBJ School at the University of Texas. “We need better gang management and early intervention.”
Keeping the most challenging youths in the state system allows the counties to deal with the others who get into trouble for skipping school, running away from home and other offenses that wouldn’t be crimes if committed by adults.
County oversight is much cheaper, according to Moll, the think-tank analyst. The average daily cost for each incarcerated youth in any of Texas’ six state-run detention centers is over $400, but in county facilities it is about $140 less.
Texas – as Georgia is planning – took some of the money it had spent on its state-run system and transferred it to the counties. Some critics in Georgia have expressed fear that state officials would shift responsibilities to the local governments but not shift adequate funds.
That hasn’t been a problem in Texas.
If Texas were indeed to pass the cost of reforming the youngsters to the counties, the local governments would have the option of closing their facilities, Moll said. Thus, the Legislature has a strong incentive not to create any unfunded mandates.
However, state Sen. Kel Seliger, the former vice chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, one of two legislative panels that investigated the reports of brutality, cautioned about getting excited over the cost savings the reforms to the juvenile justice system have triggered.
“This was not intended to be a money-saving issue,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo. “It was intended to reform the system.”