Counties, agencies start adjusting to juvenile justice changes

Work starts early to adapt to justice system changes

ATLANTA — Even before Gov. Nathan Deal signs a comprehensive juvenile-justice bill into law this week in Dalton, state and local governments have begun putting the pieces into place.

After seven years of effort by lawyers, advocates and legislators, reforms are on the way to becoming law that will fundamentally change how delinquent children are handled. Instead of shipping most off to be locked up by the state, they’ll stay in their hometown where they will be subject to intensive supervision and counseling.

The goal of House Bill 242 is to eventually take money that the state would have spent holding them behind bars and channel it to local governments, which will use their choice of programs in dealing with the young troublemakers. Only violent youths are to be kept in state facilities.

“It’s a big step forward for us. We’re basically pairing research on what works and what’s been shown to be effective with funding and outcomes,” said Joe Vignati, the administrator of the justice division at the Governor’s Of­fice for Children and Fam­ilies.

The only restriction is that the programs must have had success somewhere else first.

“We don’t want folks going out doing Scared Straight programing because that’s been shown not to be effective,” Vignati said.

One state agency has already begun taking applications for $5 million that the General Assembly put into next year’s budget for county pilot programs. Another agency found $1 million in federal funds to allow smaller counties to test programs so that 18 counties will be ready to act in August.

To be renewed, county programs must reduce the number of children sent to state
facilities by 20 percent.

A workshop was held Tuesday about how counties can get the grants. It was attended by more than 200 Juve­nile Court judges, social workers and representatives of mental health agencies.

“The state has wasted no time in issuing the guidelines for the $6 million in grants for community-based services. There is clearly a cooperative effort between the two state agencies with the money and the grant-making experience,” said Pat Willis, the executive director of one of Voices for Georgia’s Children, which pushed seven years for this reform.

Universities and nonprofit groups are advising counties for free on which programs to consider. Some of the options include programs that have already been tried in various parts of the state, according to Thomas Worthy, the deputy executive council to the governor.

A portion of the grants will remain available for untested concepts as a way to find better ideas.

A key part of implementing the new law will be setting up a way to keep score. A state commission that studied the juvenile justice system was frequently frustrated by the lack of comprehensive statistics. Large counties kept their data in formats that made comparisons to other counties difficult.

The bill will change how juvenile courts work as well. Accused children will now have their own representatives, who will speak up when the children disagree with their parents or social workers on what’s in their best interest.

Willis said she’s confident the judges, prosecutors and police will be trained on the law’s changes, but she worries that private attorneys who represent children might not and could miss a chance to
exert a child’s rights.

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