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October 6, 2012

Georgia looking at ways to reform juvenile justice

ATLANTA — After overhauling its adult criminal justice system this year to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders and reduce skyrocketing prison costs, the state of Georgia is turning its attention to the juvenile justice system.

Gov. Nathan Deal in May extended the tenure of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which made recommendations to state lawmakers for this year’s reform of the adult system. As the council tackles the juvenile justice system they are examining ways to reduce recidivism, deal more effectively with low-risk offenders and ensure that the state is getting the greatest return on its juvenile justice spending.

“Clearly, we’re not experiencing the outcomes that the taxpayers of this state deserve and that public safety demands,” said council co-chair and state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, adding that a lot of low-risk offenders are spending time in costly facilities that may not be the best option for them.

The council has held several meetings since July and has solicited the help of the Pew Center on the States, which also provided data analysis for the council’s adult criminal justice reform recommendations. Pew consultants are analyzing data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the courts and the Department of Juvenile Justice to identify key challenges in the state.

Some key findings include: the recidivism rate has essentially remained flat for the last decade; offense types and risk levels have not changed significantly over the past decade; most juveniles in out-of-home placement have seen shorter lengths of stay in the past five to 10 years, except for designated felons, who have seen their lengths of stay increase.

Georgia’s juvenile code was adopted more than 40 years ago, and research and thinking on juvenile justice has evolved considerably since then, said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton and Law Policy Center at Emory University.

“The data that the council has been reviewing show very consistently that we are overusing our secure detention resources on low-level offenders,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that the council is going to interpret this information in positive ways and really help us take a step forward.”

Some juvenile offenders, especially those charged with relatively minor offenses and who are considered low risk, are allowed to remain at home with some level of supervision, while others are placed in out-of-home facilities.

There are three types of out-of-home placement: regional youth detention centers, which are like adult jails and are meant for short-term stays, generally prior to adjudication; youth development campuses, which are like adult prisons and are meant for juveniles committed to the department for a longer period of time; and non-secure residential facilities, which are like supervised group homes.

The state’s recidivism rate — which in Georgia is measured by the number of juveniles who commit another offense within three years — is about 50 percent, and has been rising slightly for those coming out of youth development campuses.

“What that tells us is that in Georgia public safety outcomes are not getting better,” Pew’s Jason Newman said. “And the real question is why is that happening and what can a state do to utilize its resources more effectively in order to reduce that recidivism rate?”

The council is looking at low-risk offenders, especially those in out-of-home placements to see if there’s a more effective way for the state to use its resources. It costs about $90,000 a year for an offender to stay at a youth development campus and about $30,000 a year at a non-secure residential facility, Newman said.

“What the research shows us is if you’re going to be effective in reducing recidivism, you should focus your resources on the higher risk offenders to get the biggest bang for your buck,” Newman said.

A majority of offenses committed by juveniles are non-violent. Among the young offenders allowed to remain at home, 76 percent are considered low risk for reoffending. Even in youth detention centers and regional youth development campuses, more than a third of the offenders are low-risk, while nearly half are low-risk in the non-secure residential facilities.

Young offenders do better when they’re allowed to stay at home with strong supervision and programs to help them, said Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske, who was added to the council this year.

“The research says if you take a low-risk kid and you treat that low-risk kid as if he’s high-risk by committing him to an institution, you’re going to make him worse,” Teske said. “We are, to some extent, making kids worse.”

Locking up fewer kids would reduce recidivism and would also allow the redirection of state funds to more effective community-based programs to help prevent delinquency, he said. Rather than spending tens of thousands of dollars a year to house a young offender, the state could spend under $10,000 to provide appropriate community intervention, including electronic monitoring if necessary, he said.

The council plans to break into work groups to discuss specific issues through October and November and then will draw up a report with recommendations for the governor and General Assembly by the end of the year.

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