Juvenile justice reform could save taxpayers money

Changes in the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice could save taxpayers more than $90,000 for each child who doesn’t have to be incarcerated.

In a town hall-style meeting at the Augusta Library Headquarters on Monday, a panel of officials – including State Sen. Hardie Davis, Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree, Judges Doug Flanagan and Pam Doumar and District Attorney Ashley Wright – discussed the passage of a reform bill and what it will mean to troubled youth when it takes effect on Jan. 1.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles said the new law will allow more children to undergo rehabilitation and remediation rather than face time in youth detention centers as they do now.

“There are a lot of individuals who shouldn’t be incarcerated or detained,” he said. “Some people may say that Georgia is getting weak on crime. I beg to differ. I think Georgia is getting smarter.”

Before speaking, Flan­agan showed the audience a printed copy of the code, a stack of papers more than an inch thick.

It replaces one that had been in place for more than 40 years.

“This new code is a godsend,” he said. “It will make a difference for children, but it will have to be tweaked some.”

Among the changes that Flanagan highlighted was the addition of a category called Children in Need of Services, or CHINS. The new category allows the juvenile justice system to identify at-risk children who might need guidance before crimes are committed, ultimately keeping them out of youth detention centers, he said.

“We don’t even have to make offenders out of them,” he said.

The new code also allows for courts to seal juvenile records, meaning that offenders who wish to apply for college or a job when they become adults without disclosing previous criminal offenses will be able to do so.

Youth offenders will also have more of a voice in the new system, Flanagan said. Children will have the right to an attorney instead of letting the parents decide on their behalf.

“The kid needs to have a voice,” he said.

Doumar said the Rich­mond County Juvenile Court has also been awarded a $250,000 grant to start a multisystemic therapy program in conjunction with the Department of Juvenile Justice. The program will try rehabilitating at-risk youths by working with parents to help them regain influence in their children’s lives.

Doumar said she expects to program to help reduce youth detention center committals by seven to 10 children over the next nine months.

The program will also allow children to receive treatment in their homes, a better environment than a detention center, Davis said.

“We’re just trying to keep families together,” he said.

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