ATLANTA — Lawmakers in the House unanimously approved a sweeping overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice system on Thursday, sending the measure to the Senate for consideration.
The overall goal is to reduce repeat offenders and bring down costs. The legislation, based on recommendations by a special panel convened by Gov. Nathan Deal, calls for emphasizing community-based programs over residential detention centers for nonviolent youth offenders, providing judges with greater discretion in sentencing and offering more mental health and drug counseling.
Before the vote, bill sponsor Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, urged lawmakers to consider the high costs of the current system. He noted that Georgia spends more than $90,000 a year on each youth offender behind bars and said 65 percent who are released end up back in jail within three years.
“You can put a child through the finest college in the country for less than that,” Willard said.
The reform is estimated to save the state nearly $28 million between now and 2015 and allow it to cease plans to build two secure residential detention facilities, Willard said. He noted the effort drew bipartisan support, involved input from various research and advocacy groups and was modeled on reforms passed in Texas and Ohio.
The overhaul has been a few years in the making. A bill with similar goals stalled during last year’s session over concerns about who would bear some of the costs in moving from a system relying heavily on secure residential detention facilities to one with a strong emphasis on community-based programs.
Willard said those concerns have been addressed and that some of the money saved by the state will be reinvested in programs established by the legislation. For instance, he said Deal has allocated $5 million in his budget to help local officials in areas with high concentrations of those who would be eligible for such programs.
State lawmakers enacted major changes to the adult criminal justice system last year, with similar aims of reducing costs and repeat offender rates while offering greater flexibility to judges on sentencing.
Willard said the enormous savings for both efforts should negate any misperception that Georgia is becoming soft on crime. He reiterated that the worst offenders would still be locked up.
He said 40 percent of youth offenders in secure residential detention centers are there because of a misdemeanor-type offense or a crime that only a youth can commit – such as truancy or running away from home.
“Why are they there? They are there because there are not programs currently in the community that judges can send them to,” Willard said in an interview after the vote.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein urged lawmakers to adopt the reforms during her State of the Judiciary speech earlier this month. At the time, she said she often hears from juvenile court judges who are frustrated about having few options under the current system other than incarceration for petty thieves and other repeat criminals who need counseling.