Juvenile Justice Bill Would Revise Designated Felony Act
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.)
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