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Georgia House Passes Juvenile Justice Reform Bill 172-0

Mike Klein

The most sweeping juvenile justice reform legislation since Jimmy Carter was Governor sailed through the Georgia House on Wednesday afternoon, passing 172-0.  It moves to the Senate where passage is predicted and then on to Governor Nathan Deal who supports the legislation. Leaders from both parties spoke favorably in the well before the overwhelming vote.

House Bill 641 would update Georgia statutes to make certain the state is in federal compliance. Like ongoing adult criminal justice reform, the legislation moves the state toward provision of more services to juveniles who need personal treatment and less reliance on incarceration when juveniles are not considered a threat to themselves, their families or public safety.

A series of short presentations from bipartisan speakers outlined updates in the 245 pages of HB 641. There would be changes to policies that regulate foster care, permanent placement hearings, adoption codes, family mitigation hearings, children who are status offenders, the rights of natural parents and the creation of a new commission that would routinely review the changes so that another four decades does not pass before this subject is broached.

Exactly what it would cost to implement HB 641 remains uncertain, so the bill received strong bipartisan support largely on financial faith.  The bill would not take effect until next year, and not until the 2013 General Assembly receives a financial impact report and authorizes funds.

House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard

House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard spoke to the point: “We’ve had several people address this. We’ve had a great deal of discussion.  Nobody can say specifically what the cost is.  I’ve asked the departments, the prosecuting attorneys, (and) the defense counsel to give me some figures.  They come in all over the range.”

Willard assured the House, “We are going to do an empirical study as best as we can between now and next January and come back to this General Assembly with a full explanation of cost.

The bill calls for some things we have not had, that is, any state case because of delinquency issues must be done through a prosecuting attorney,” Willard said.  “It also provides that the child, just like for adults, will be represented by an attorney.”

The bill also mandates that juveniles would receive risk assessments.  “I say to you we have maybe some additional costs upfront but the big thing is going to be the savings we realize over the years by not having these children always locked up and the fact that we may save some childrens’ lives as far as their futures,” Willard said.  That is a part of it, a big part.”

This week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation published an issues analysis: “Five Essential Principles for Juvenile Justice Reform.”  The Foundation focused on less restrictive placements for low-risk offenders, comprehensive risk assessments for all youths, more family focused resolutions, informal processing for first-time and low-risk offenders and, a recommendation that pre-adjudication detention of juveniles for only those who present a safety risk.

Juvenile justice reform has been a significant priority for several state-based organizations including Just Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Voices for Georgia’s Children and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 29, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Criminal Justice Reform Bill has Mission Creep Issues

Mike Klein

Thursday morning a House and Senate special committee will gather to discuss mission creep.  That is not the official name of the hearing, also known as the first hearing to consider criminal justice reform legislation, but it might just as well have been advertised as mission creep.

Georgia criminal justice reform legislation is many things, nearly all of them positive, but it also is an example of mission creep.  To understand whether House Bill 1176 hit or missed the mark, let’s begin with the assignment given to last year’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform:

“Address the growth of the state’s prison population, contain corrections costs and increase efficiencies and effectiveness that result in better offender management;  Improve public safety by reinvesting a portion of the savings into strategies that reduce crime and recidivism; and, Hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision, sanctions and services.”  That language is directly taken from the Special Council’s final report.

Nothing in that challenge asked the Special Council to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession.  However, all of that is found in the current HB 1176.

Georgia is not a criminal justice reform trendsetter.  Many states – some here in the southeast – have enacted or considered changes to reduce prison populations, address recidivism, improve community treatment programs, reduce state costs and ease the burden on crowded courts.

There might be many good reasons to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession.  But using HB 1176 as the vehicle for those goals is mission creep.  Those ideas – which might be very good ideas – need to be considered on their own merits.

The principles behind criminal justice reform include incarcerating those people who can do us harm, treating those people who need help more than they need incarceration, keeping the public safe and reinvesting prison system dollars into treatment programs.  This is quite a leap from do the crime, do the time principles that caused prison overcrowding here and nationally.

Criminal justice reform asks us to make a fairly significant philosophical leap:  Will we continue to treat the people who can do us harm the same as those who merely need our help, or, will we create new approaches that incarcerate the people who have done the most harm, and likely would do so again, but create new paths for those who most often do harm only to themselves?

Some of these numbers are frightening.  Georgia’s state prison population – men and women – has grown from fewer than 30,000 two decades ago to 44,000 in the year 2000 to 56,000 today with projections of 60,000 within four years if we make no fundamental systemic changes.  We add about 1,000 new people to the prison population each year, above and beyond those who are released.

The number of Georgians on parole –22,000 – is up 9 percent and the number of Georgians on probation –156,000 – is up 22 percent since the year 2000.  One-in-13 Georgia adults is behind bars, on parole or on probation – the highest percentage in the nation.  The annual cost to fund our penitentiaries has swollen from $500 million per year two decades ago to almost $1.1 billion.

Our state prisons operate at 107 percent capacity.  At any moment several hundred more inmates are held in local jails because there is no room for them in the state penal system.  Sure, we can build more prisons, but it costs $80 million to build a prison.  It costs millions more dollars every year to feed and clothe inmates and pay for their health care, millions more to hire staff to run those prisons.

And what do we get for all this spending?  We get a 30 percent failure rate – measured as the percentage of released inmates who are back behind bars within three years.  We spend $1.1 billion per year to sustain a 30 percent failure rate.  A private sector business would not last very long if its products routinely posted a 30 percent failure rate.

Thursday morning the House and Senate special committee that sits down to discuss criminal justice reform should begin by deciding how to trim out the mission creep add-ons that do not directly address the urgent need we have to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform in Georgia.

Criminal justice reform is arguably the most serious work of the 2012 General Assembly.  It needs to remain on-point and focused.  Other good ideas should be handled on their own merits as separate legislation.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 29, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Governor’s Office: Criminal Justice Bill “Doesn’t Achieve Exactly What We Wanted”

Mike Klein

Criminal justice reform legislation introduced this week contains highly anticipated alternatives to incarceration such as expanded drug treatment courts, along with probation and parole revisions, and modifications to burglary, forgery and theft statues.  We knew that was coming.

Some sections of House Bill 1176 that were not expected include extending the statute of limitations on prosecution of child abuse cases – this was not a specific focus of work done last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — and religious clergy might well be surprised to learn they are mentioned in the criminal justice reform conversation.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s office already signaled the current bill is not good enough. “It doesn’t achieve exactly what we wanted,” said press secretary Stephanie Mayfield.  “One of our main things is to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. The initial bill isn’t something in its current form that we think does that to its best ability but again, it’s in the initial stages.  It is a starting point.”  The legislation was submitted without a fiscal note.

HB 1176 will be vetted by a joint committee of senators and representatives.  It can be amended in hearings.  The bill is not hogtied by the Day 30 Crossover rule next Wednesday.  The first committee meeting could occur toward the end of this week, but none is currently announced.

There are no child abuse recommendations in the Special Council final report and definitely no members of the clergy.  The bill states “a member of the clergy shall not be required to report child abuse received solely from a perpetrator of the child abuse through confession or other similar communication required to be kept confidential under church doctrine or practice.”

HB 1176 also states, “When a clergy member receives information about child abuse from any source, the clergy member shall comply with reporting requirements … even though the clergy member may have also received a report of child abuse from the confession of the perpetrator.”

The consensus of people we spoke with on background is that the legislation submitted Monday needs work so what we see now is not likely to be what we will see later.  Here are comparisons of some but not all Special Council recommendations and the proposed HB 1176 legislation:

Drug and Mental Health Courts: The Council recommended expansion of alternative treatment courts.  The bill discusses how to certify existing drug courts, create new ones, and also how to pay for their staffing and associated costs.  State funds, other public funds, federal grants and even donated dollars could help defray drug and mental health court costs.  Risk and needs assessment of offenders are emphasized in language that pertains to drug and mental health courts.  Gov. Deal included millions of dollars to expand drug courts in his fiscal 2013 budget.

Drug Crimes: Some drug crimes would be prosecuted based on the types of narcotics and the weight of the seized evidence.  This approach would make a distinction between personal users whose problems are addiction and traffickers who are dealing narcotics.  The Council approach was adopted in the legislation.  Some prosecutors are skeptical about changes to drug laws.

Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve: The Council recommended that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in some drug trafficking cases, with the court required to state the circumstances and the reasons for its decision.  This idea is not included in HR 1176.

Theft, Forgery and Burglary: The Council recommended and the legislation contains new felony thresholds in these three categories. To cite one example, the Council proposed an increase in the felony shoplifting level from $300 to $750.  The bill as proposed says theft valued at less than $1,000 would be considered a misdemeanor.  Several burglary categories would make distinctions between residential and other kinds of burglaries, and even time of day.

Rape Laws: The legislation would remove the words “prosecution for the crime of forcible rape must be commenced within 15 years after the commission of the crime” from current state code.   There was no Council recommendation about changes to rape prosecution laws.  Later, the bill says cruelty to children, rape, aggravated sodomy, child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes and incest could be prosecuted at any time when the child is under 16 years old on the date of the violation.

Personal Criminal Records: HB 1176 contains extensive discussion about restriction of access to and disclosure of individual criminal history records.  Again, the Council made no recommendations.

Performance Incentive Pilot Projects: Special Council members proposed that the state and up to 10 local communities create pilot projects to reduce recidivism.  Communities that returned fewer people to state prisons would be able to receive a share of state dollars not spent on incarceration.  Performance incentive pilot projects are not included in HB 1176.  However, this idea might not require legislation and could possibly be done administratively.

Pre-Sentence Risk Assessment: The Council emphasized risk assessment. Legislation would create a five-year window beginning in January, 2013 to start and assess pilot projects.  If the concept proves successful a statewide model would be created in July, 2018.  The focus would be on “the lowest risk, prison bound, nonviolent drug and property defendants.”

Parole and Probation: The Council proposed and the legislation includes several ideas to improve supervision of offenders in the community.  Mandatory supervision would be required for all offenders who serve their maximum prison sentence.   Earned compliance credits would allow parolees and probationers to reduce their supervision time when they satisfy all terms of their supervision.  Parole and probation officers would be permitted to impose additional sanctions on individuals who violate the terms of their supervision. These ideas are aimed at reducing recidivism.

Electronic Surveillance: Eligible probationers – the state has 156,000 – and eligible parolees – the state has 22,000 — would increasingly find themselves tethered to electronic surveillance, including global positioning satellite systems.  Alternative methods of tracking non-violent, low-risk probationers and parolees were emphasized by the Council and included in the legislation.

Minor Traffic Offenses: The Council proposed decriminalizing minor traffic offenses that could be satisfied by paying a fine.  The rationale was it would relieve pressure on the courts so judges could concentrate on more significant cases.  This idea is not in the bill.

The criminal justice reform conversation remains fluid.  It would not be surprising if stakeholders move ahead on areas where they agree and defer other decisions until next year.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

February 29, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment