Georgia juvenile justice reform clears hurdle

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ATLANTA — An overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system has cleared its first legislative hurdle, as lawmakers work to broaden changes they have already attempted with adults to try to reduce crime rates and prison costs.

The latest proposal is intended to place nonviolent juvenile offenders into community-based programs that treat root causes of criminal behavior rather than putting the youths behind bars.

The Georgia House Judiciary Committee made several dozen changes to the details of the bill Tuesday but didn’t alter a general outline that tracks the recommendations of a special panel that Gov. Nathan Deal commissioned to study the matter.

Chairman Wendell Wil­lard said the latest version has the backing from state and local agencies, including Georgia’s district attorneys association. Youth advocates and many juvenile judges also are pushing the measure. And Deal has included money in his 2014 budget proposal to help expand the community programs.

“We hope we are making major strides in finding better practices,” Willard said.

Georgia spends more than $90,000 per year on each youthful offender behind bars. It costs about $30,000 to serve a delinquent at a residential facility. About 65 percent who are released end up back in jail, Willard said, a rate he called “totally unacceptable.”

The new model, he told a packed hearing room at the Capitol, should “save lives that would otherwise continue down a road of ruin.”

Among other measures, the redesign would place a greater emphasis on access to drug treatment and mental health counseling. Some residential programs still would involve confinement but differ from adult short-term jails and long-term prisons. The chairman noted, though, that “many of our offenders still need to be locked up” and still would be.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein struck the same chord when she addressed the full legislature earlier this session.

“Some of our juvenile offenders have committed heinous, violent crimes and must be treated as adults and locked away from society,” she said. “But they are the minority. For our citizens’ sake, we must do better with the majority. Many of our juveniles deserve a second chance.”

An overhaul would put Georgia in line with a national trend toward counseling instead of incarceration. About two dozen states have made significant changes to their juvenile justice programs over the past decade.

Georgia is among the states to make changes, having expanded the purview of juvenile courts and limiting how long certain low-risk offenders can be kept in detention. Still, Georgia is – and would remain under House Bill 242 – one of fewer than a dozen states that cap the juvenile system’s jurisdiction at 16 years of age. Most states set the cap at 17.

Willard’s bill now moves to the Rules Committee, the panel that sets the House debate calendar. The measure is not expected to encounter resistance.


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