Georgians will need a comfy couch, lots of time and perhaps some caffeine when they begin to read newly introduced juvenile justice and civil code legislation. Juvenile justice provisions in House Bill 242 include a proposal to completely revise the state’s 32-year-old juvenile designated felony act, a long overdue step forward, by creating two classes of more and less serious juvenile felony crimes.
Juvenile civil code revisions would update laws that govern how juvenile courts operate and the rights of minors in custody and other situations. The legislation is a comfy couch read at 244 pages. The juvenile justice sections closely follow the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations, which were released in December. Civil code updates, many years in progress, originated in HB 641 last year.
“We are light years from where we started from a political and a moral perspective in how we deal with criminal justice in this state for adults and juveniles,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs who served as co-chair of the 2012 Special Council initiative. “We have become smarter in the way we address the enormous cost and the horrible return on investment that our taxpayers are receiving.”
Last year the General Assembly enacted adult corrections system reforms that are now being implemented statewide. This year lawmakers will focus on how to fund more juvenile program resources in local communities, reduce juvenile inmate populations, address mental health and substance abuse treatment challenges, reduce recidivism, and keep a lid on escalating costs.
Georgia’s 1981-version of the juvenile Designated Felony Act included fewer than one dozen crimes, the worst crimes committed by the scariest youth. Over more than three decades the Act was steadily expanded. What you have today is a Felony Act that treats accused juvenile murderers about the same as juveniles accused of smash and grab burglaries. Both are felony crimes.
HB 242 proposes to create a more serious “Class A” and less serious “Class B” structure that would give juvenile court judges greater latitude than they have today, especially in sentencing. Accused murderers and burglars would no longer be treated alike. The legislation is extremely detailed with specific crimes that would be considered more or less serious felonies.
If the bill is enacted as introduced, HB 242 would also prohibit the incarceration of status offenders and most juveniles adjudicated for misdemeanor crimes in secure facilities. Other provisions in the bill include focusing the state’s resources on programs proven to reduce recidivism, requiring the use of risk assessment tools, and mandating uniform data collection.
Governor Nathan Deal’s Budget Report also includes an additional recommendation from the Special Council – to create a performance incentive structure to reward jurisdictions with state funds when juvenile courts assign juveniles to community programs rather than incarcerate them in state facilities. These additional state funds will then be used to create programs in the community to treat juveniles locally.
“This is a very positive step,” said House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, lead sponsor of HB 242. Governor Deal set aside $5 million in next year’s budget to expand community programs and jump-start new ones. Some 65 percent of juveniles who do time in secure state facilities are found guilty of a new crime within three years of their release. Willard said the state must try new ways to avoid creating “lifetime criminals. I think you will see a major savings in childrens’ lives.”
National studies including research compiled for Georgia by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project show that placement in out-of-home facilities does not lower the likelihood of juvenile reoffending and may in fact increase the likelihood of committing a new crime for some offenders. In fact, lock-ups sometimes produce a more sophisticated offender. This is more acute when youth require mental or substance abuse care.
Legislation proposes that youth adjudicated for a misdemeanor crime could not be sent to state confinement facilities. They would become candidates for community treatment programs. By enacting the recommendations of the Special Council, Georgia could reduce its juvenile inmate population by one-third to about 1,200, reinvest savings into local programs and save nearly $85 million over five years. The result would be lower costs and reduced recidivism – significant improvements for Georgia taxpayers.
Georgia’s juvenile code is considered antiquated, dating back to the early 1970s and subsequently patched over and re-patched many times. HB 242 would update current laws on dependency proceedings, family reunification, disposition of dependent children, mental health and other care for children in need of services, the emancipation of minors and more.
“We can do a better job of service to these children,” Willard said.
House Judiciary will hold a full committee hearing Thursday afternoon at the State Capitol. A small number of adult system reforms proposed by the Special Council in its 2012 report will be contained in separate legislation expected next week. Legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Deal would become law on July 1.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
The Georgia House is expected to vote Wednesday on juvenile justice reform legislation that is every bit as significant as a similar adult criminal justice reform initiative, but it has received less public scrutiny. The bill appears to have significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate. One big proposal would mandate that county prosecutors be assigned to every juvenile court.
“We are making substantial changes in the way in which we handle problem children in Georgia,” House Judiciary Chair Rep. Wendell Willard said this past weekend during the 21st annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary conference in Atlanta. “One of the things that I’ve made sure is in there is that before the state can have any child placed in its custody there is going to be what we call a risk assessment to find out what are the problems that the child is facing.”
Willard introduced HB 641 with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Four public groups – Just Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Voices for Georgia’s Children, and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University – have worked for several years to update the decades old state juvenile justice law. There is a similar bill in the Senate.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has prepared a position paper, “Five Essential Principles for Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System.” The report will be published Tuesday, February 28.
Georgia currently has some 50,000 youths in detention or under supervision. Willard told the state bar meeting that improved risk assessment tools would allow for better decisions about who should be incarcerated and who would benefit more from other treatment options.
Continuing his explanation about assessment, Willard said, “Are there problems emotionally? Is he or she being physically abused or are they being sexually abused? A lot of them are. They get in trouble, sometimes it’s what is going on in their home life or other situations. Let’s start looking at finding a way to deal with the problem other than just locking up.”
Stronger emphasis on alternative treatment methods instead of mandatory incarceration closely matches work being done in the adult system which is trying to address who scares us and should be behind bars or, who just needs our help because they are not a public safety threat.
The juvenile justice reform bill sponsored by House Judiciary chair Willard was submitted in the 2011 Legislature. Two days of hearings were held late last summer when the legislators were in Atlanta for the redistricting session. At 245 pages, the bill is big on words and new ideas.
One proposed revision would require the District Attorney’s office in every county to handle all Juvenile Court prosecutions. “Under current practices that is not what happens in a majority of jurisdictions,” said Douglas County District Attorney David McDade who is also President of the Georgia District Attorneys’ Association. McDade also appeared at the weekend state Bar panel.
Some Georgia juvenile courts hire prosecutors, some use District Attorney or other court staff and, McDade said, some larger circuits have dedicated full-time prosecutors. “In an ideal world the state would fund a statewide prosecution model for every circuit,” McDade said in an email. “Unfortunately, the state currently provides no funding for Juvenile Court prosecution.” HB 641 also does not provide specific state dollars to fund new prosecutors.
Alternative treatment models are a recurring them in recommendations made last November by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which considered only the adult system. One of the Council findings, however, was there should be more focus on Georgia youth who run afoul of the law – some in serious ways and some not so seriously. Willard said adult criminal justice reform legislation is “nearly ready.”
An executive summary of the juvenile justice legislation written by Just Georgia discusses the dozens of proposed modifications and updates. Just Georgia noted current state law contains no definition of abuse against a minor; the new law would define abuse “to include emotional abuse and prenatal abuse, in addition to physical abuse and sexual abuse and exploitation.”
In a world of acronyms, here’s another that would become more familiar lexicon: CHINS stands for children in need of services. Disruptive actions by these children include status offenses that would not be crimes if committed by adults, such as skipping school, running away from home, violating curfew and smoking tobacco, and otherwise being unruly or disobedient.
Is bad behavior a criminal activity? Under current law CHINS are dealt with as delinquents and might be subject to incarceration. New proposals would incorporate a wide range of alternative treatment options for not just the child, but also the child’s family when there is one present.
Other proposed changes would reduce the maximum period of time before placement hearings for children under the age of seven. Currently hearings must take place within twelve months after a child is placed into foster care; the proposal would reduce that to nine months.
Click here to read HB 641, the juvenile justice reform legislation. Click here for Just Georgia. Click here for Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Click here for Voices for Georgia’s Children. Click here for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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