Panel agrees on juvenile reform recommendations

ATLANTA — The way children and teens who break the law are handled in Georgia could change under recommendations a special council agreed to last week.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a 21-member panel that radically overhauled adult sentencing in the last legislative session, is proposing equally dramatic changes in juvenile justice for lawmakers to consider when they convene in January.

The main difference is that troublemaking minors will be sentenced based not on what they did, but on the chances they could break the law again.

It’s an approach Ohio pioneered and that Texas instituted five years ago.

Georgia’s juvenile-justice system hasn’t suffered the same kind of turmoil the Lone Star State experienced. However, a teenage inmate at the Augusta Youth Development Campus died in November 2011 after an attack by another juvenile.

While the Juvenile Justice Department undertook internal reforms after the incident, the council’s goal was to consider improvements to sentencing that would reduce the rate at which juveniles are arrested for new crimes after release and ways to save taxpayers money.

The first step involves changing laws to give judges the discretion to hand down different sentences in similar cases. It means repealing mandatory sentences written into the law over the years by politicians frustrated by judges they considered too lenient.

“I think it’s a few judges,” said commission chairman Mike Boggs, a former legislator and Waycross judge who now sits on the Georgia Court of Appeals. “I’m an ardent supporter of restoring judicial discretion.”

Next, the commission recommends judges base their sentences on the likelihood that a juvenile will commit another crime. Those with a low risk would stay in their homes, report regularly to a supervising probation officer and attend counseling sessions. Those with a high risk would get locked up.

Georgia taxpayers spend about $300 million a year on the Department of Juvenile Justice, in addition to what the state pays for judges, courts and prosecutors. That figure hasn’t changed much, despite deep cuts to other parts of state government.

So letting the low-risk kids stay at home under intense supervision and counseling should save millions of dollars and allow the state to concentrate on the hard-core offenders, Boggs said.

“We know that they are going to be served better in these community-based programs and you get better outcomes,” he said.

Ironically, statistics show that the longer low-risk kids are locked up in the system, the higher the risks that they’ll get back into legal trouble, according to Jason Newman, a public-safety policy analyst with the Pew Center on the States, a Washington-based foundation that provided research and recommendations to the council. On the other hand, the system does a better job with the high-risk offenders, so concentrating on them will lower the crime rate.

The commission recommends that half of the money saved closing unneeded lock-up facilities be given to counties to run probation and counseling programs. Boggs predicted that many would contract out to private companies or community service boards that already provide treatment to addicts and the mentally ill.

Of course, he knows it won’t be so simple in such a diverse state.

“The challenge in a state of 159 counties is how do you roll out a delivery system that is uniform and is available in 159 counties,” he said.

The commission met Tuesday to agree on the 15 recommendations. It may round them out in its next meeting Dec. 4 and compile its report to the governor and General Assembly at its final meeting Dec. 13.

Part of the council is drafting proposals ensuring that its adult reforms are fully implemented, such as a permanent oversight panel. It’s also suggesting revisions to minimum drug sentences and risk assessments of adults before sentencing. The details will be made public at future meetings.

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