Georgia groups push for money-saving juvenile law reforms

ATLANTA — Two groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum have reached similar recommendations for revamping Georgia’s juvenile laws.

Until recently, there had been little agreement on how to fix the hodgepodge of laws that have found their way into the juvenile section of the state code in the past 40 years.

The momentum belongs to the newest group to enter the picture, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, legislative leaders and Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. The goal was important enough that Hunstein appointed herself, although she doesn’t join the public discussions, maintaining judicial objectivity in case the issues should come before the top court.

Deal, who was once a juvenile court judge, named his son to the panel. Last year, with a slightly different membership, the commission proposed wide-ranging changes to the way adults are sentenced. The Legislature passed those recommendations unanimously.

As part of its encore, the council rehired the Pew Center on the States to provide research and recommendations.

Central to last year’s effort were estimates that the changes would save taxpayers $264 million over the next five years. The reason for such optimism is the lightening of sentences for substance abuse and small-time check forgery and burglary that will reduce the number behind bars for those offenses.

“We spend $1.2 billion a year on our prison system, and those costs were set to soar far beyond what we can afford,” Deal said when he signed the adult reforms. “That makes no sense for taxpayers when there are more cost-effective means that have better outcomes.”

He is hoping to pull the same rabbit out of the hat with this year’s council report.

Because Georgia spends $98,000 a year on each high-risk juvenile it keeps locked up, about twice the cost of the average adult inmate, there’s room for savings.

The other group that’s working to change the law is a coalition called JUSTGeorgia. Since 2006, the coalition of child advocacy groups, professors and lawyers has focused on a rewrite of the law to make it more humane in the treatment of children, arguing that savings would be a side benefit.

“It’s true, we didn’t start out saying, ‘How can we change this code to save money?’ ” said Pat Willis, the executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, an Atlanta-based advocacy group that’s part of the coalition.

However, she predicts taxpayers could save money by shifting from detention to counseling.

Poor judgment and inappropriate behavior by children aren’t reasons to give them what is essentially a life sentence of crime and punishment, she argues.

Because the juveniles in the high-risk category have a 60 percent chance of returning to detention three years after their release, each one who reforms saves taxpayers.

Both groups use the same national research, which shows that tough sentencing isn’t as effective as home-bound counseling.

JUSTGeorgia has repeatedly hit dead ends in the Legislature because it also insists that juveniles have more representation in court. All those extra lawyers cost money, and juvenile judges say they get in the way when the judge and caseworkers are already looking out for the kids.

The group also faced a firestorm in its initial draft because it wanted to raise the age of who is considered a juvenile from 17 to 18, eliminate statutory rape between teens and curtail the practice of trying and sentencing juveniles as adults when they’re charged with serious violent crimes.

As the coalition has backed away from each of its most controversial provisions, it finally won unanimous approval in the House during the last session. Then the measure passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee before failing to reach the full Senate.

That bill also revised other aspects of juvenile law, including custody and neglect, which are not on the Pew Center’s agenda.

“That’s sort of the difference between the lens that we were looking through and the lens that Pew is looking at,” Willis said. “We were looking at the lens of who is in the court (for any reason), who is coming in, how can we address their needs.”

While JUSTGeorgia took two years to research and draft its version of the revised law and the next four lobbying for it, the council has a short lifespan and must produce by Dec. 31. The coalition blazed a trail that could ensure passage, even if its initial perspective was different from the council’s.

“We feel like we’re heading in the same direction,” Willis said Friday.

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