ATLANTA — Georgia should overhaul its juvenile justice system in the same way state leaders have proposed focusing more heavily on rehabilitating rather than jailing nonviolent adult offenders, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein told lawmakers Wednesday.
Hunstein said in her annual State of the Judiciary address that putting nonviolent youth offenders into juvenile jails increases the likelihood they will commit crimes in the future, wastes public money and exposes them to violence and abuse. State funding cuts have limited access to mental health and child welfare services along with group homes, Hunstein said. As a result, she said juvenile judges sometimes face the choice of sending young offenders to lock-up facilities or sending them home “to get nothing at all.”
“The same reforms we are recommending to you for adults must begin with children,” she said in prepared remarks.
She cited statistics from the Department of Juvenile Justice showing that in the past three years, nearly two-thirds of the roughly 10,000 incarcerated young people have substance abuse problems. More than one-third had mental health problems.
“As with adults, we have learned that our get-tough tactics have failed to scare juvenile offenders straight,” Hunstein said.
In her remarks, Hunstein backed proposals from Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders to create specialized courts designed to treat adults with substance abuse and military veterans in trouble with the law. She said the justice system needs to address the roots of an offender’s behavior.
“If we simply throw low-risk offenders into prison, rather than holding them accountable for their wrongdoing while addressing the source of their criminal behavior, they merely become hardened criminals who are more likely to reoffend when they are released,” Hunstein said.
She warned that spending cuts by state and county governments have created a backlog of court cases. That means residents are sometimes made to wait for months before they can get a temporary hearing in a divorce case, she said. Four death penalty cases in DeKalb County cannot move forward because of a lack of court resources.