ATLANTA — A sweeping law in Georgia that aims to reduce the number of juvenile offenders in custody and save taxpayer money is set to take effect with the new year.
Under the new law, only the most serious young offenders would be kept in custody, while others convicted of more minor offenses will diverted into community-based programs. In addition to cutting costs, the law is meant to reduce the rate at which young offenders return to jail.
“When you look at it, Georgia’s getting smart on crime and getting right on crime,” Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery D. Niles said.
Nearly two-thirds of the budget of the Department of Juvenile Justice is devoted to the operation of detention facilities, where it costs more than $90,000 per year to house each offender. Community-based programs cost about $3,000 per person, according to department numbers.
About 65 percent of kids who are locked up commit new crimes once they’re released.
It’s important to lock up only those young people who are truly dangerous not those who simply misbehave, said Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, who was on the committee that submitted recommendations for the reform to lawmakers
“If you use harsh tactics on the kids who make you mad, you make them worse,” he said.
The new law tasks the Department of Juvenile Justice with developing three assessment tools.
The first is used to determine whether the young person should be detained pending a court hearing. The second assesses the risk level to help a judge determine the best sentence. And the third is meant to determine the factors that might contribute to a youth reoffending and to come up with a plan to address those.
The law also says judges won’t be able to lock up young people who commit “status offenses,” acts that are only prohibited by law because of the offender’s age, like truancy and running away. A new classification — “children in need of services” or CHINS — has been created for those who were previously called “unruly children.”
The legislation pushes a variety of agencies, including the Department of Juvenile Justice, the courts, the Division of Family and Children Services and law enforcement to work together to examine how they deal with those young people, DFCS director Sharon Hill said. Instead of sending them away to be locked up, the agencies will have to develop a service plan that includes requirements for children but also for parents or guardians. The goal is to get to the root of the problem and not just to treat the symptoms, Hill said.
Judges also won’t be able to commit young offenders unless there are four prior convictions, and one must be a felony.
To critics who say that means a young offender could commit dozens of misdemeanors without being locked up, Teske counters by pointing out another key element of the law reinvests the savings from not locking up as many children into community-based treatment programs for those who are not considered a danger to themselves or the community.
Those community-based programs have been proven to reduce recidivism, and they often include intensive therapy for the child and his family, said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, who also helped develop recommendations for the reform. The new assessment instruments should also help improve rehabilitation for those who are committed, she said.
“We can have greater confidence that at the end of their detention sentence or at the end of their treatment in the community, we’re going to have children who are better able to become self-sufficient and pro-social adults,” she said.