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Attacking the Bad Headlines Around Misdemeanor Private Probation

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

You know you’re not having a good year when virtually all the headlines explode in your face and that is the atmosphere around Georgia’s adult misdemeanor probation industry.

It is a foregone conclusion the state will re-engineer this policy sector in which private and public providers supervise about 175,000 adults whose misdemeanor offenses such as traffic tickets landed them in court. Soon we will know what that might mean in terms of 2015 legislation.

Adult misdemeanor probation headlines this year included Georgia General Assembly passage of a potential reform bill that backfired, Governor Nathan Deal’s veto of that same legislation, a highly critical state audit of misdemeanor probation services, a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that shook up misdemeanor probation and lots of opinion about what should be done next.

The Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) appointed by Governor Deal is among several entities with a large voice in the conversation. Last week the CCJR approved several recommendations.  The Council has a three-hour meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Atlanta but the agenda has not been announced.  The Council waded into misdemeanor probation at Governor Deal’s request.

Here is a very scaled down summary of some major moving parts:

HB 837 passed the House and Senate in March and would have exempted private probation providers from the Open Records Act. They would be required to report fees earned to the court, governing authority or council that entered into a contract for their services, but records would not be available to the public. Deal vetoed the bill in April.

• Also in April an official state audit reported on 35 private sector providers that supervised about 80% of misdemeanor probationers statewide in August 2013. (See Project 12-06) The audit found loose policies and procedures, inconsistencies statewide, improper fees being imposed by some providers and much more that was detailed in a 73-page report. Some providers acted outside their authority by gaming the system to force probationers to pay their fees early, extending probation terms without court authorization, improperly accounting for fees paid by probationers and even obtaining arrest warrants.

• Last month the state Supreme Court in the Sentinel Offender Services case (link) upheld the legality for court systems to contract with private probation service providers but it also held that many of their practices were in fact beyond the scope of their authority.

When it met last week in Atlanta the CCJR discussed recommendations to address the state Supreme Court’s November 24 ruling in Sentinel. The company provides misdemeanor private probation services throughout Georgia including Columbia and Richmond counties.

Thirteen plaintiffs who were sentenced to misdemeanor probation in Columbia and Richmond county courts asserted in a lawsuit that the state statute that allows for private offender services is unconstitutional. Further, they asserted that Sentinel unlawfully collected supervision fees and violated their due process rights, even seeking arrest warrants without court authorization.

In their unanimous opinion the Supreme Court justices upheld the statute that allows courts to contract with private probation services. The justices also ruled a misdemeanor probationer’s sentence cannot be extended beyond the original order and in another aspect of Sentinel the Court said electronic monitoring of misdemeanor probationers is permissible. The decision also sent several cases back to lower courts for further resolution.

In brief summary, CCJR recommendations approved last week would require that reports filed by private probation services would become public records. Probationers would have improved access to their files including the financial records for fines they paid. Arrest warrants could not be sought if a probationer missed a scheduled meeting or payment. Indigent probationers could have their fines and fees converted to public service. Courts would have the authority to modify or suspend fees. Finally, probationers would be guaranteed a hearing before any decision to suspend their sentence because of a failure to pay fines, fees or costs.

The Council will have further recommendations on private probation services. The Council’s final report will be submitted to Governor Deal and the Legislature in mid-to-late January. This will be the fourth criminal justice reform annual report. The previous three dealt with adult and juvenile justice and adult re-entry reforms.

(Mike Klein has held executive leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. His justice articles are often republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Right on Crime” initiative. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

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December 16, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Targets Huge Gap with Juvenile Justice Databank Project

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

For discussion purposes, let’s imagine you are a juvenile court judge somewhere in Georgia. A young man and his attorney are standing before you, pleading the boy’s case. Within minutes you will decide whether the boy is sentenced to detention or a community-based program.

Something about how the young man tells his story makes you question, what else is going on here?  Has this kid been kicking around without a family, without role models, without direction and what he needs is help or, is this one of those kids who really needs to be off the streets?  Is this kid about to hurt himself or someone else?  What is the right decision here?

So knowing that these questions must be answered you log onto the state’s massive juvenile justice databank that contains everything you need. The young man’s entire legal record is there, all his previous interactions with the juvenile justice system, a record of every arrest, all previous court decisions, outstanding warrants for other alleged crimes committed in any county statewide.

It’s all there, everything you need to decide between detention and a treatment program.

Except that it’s not there because, astonishingly, there is no statewide juvenile justice databank. An adult databank – the Georgia Crime Information Center — is maintained at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. There is no comparable juvenile resource. Georgia juvenile judges sometimes operate in a weird blind man’s alley when they try to understand the true picture about a troubled kid.  Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske has said sometimes he uses his cell phone from the bench to contact other judges who might know something about a juvenile who is standing before him in court.

That should start to change next year with the anticipated creation of a juvenile justice data dictionary and repository that would be accessible throughout law enforcement. The Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) appointed by Governor Nathan Deal has worked on the project all year. It unanimously approved recommendations during a meeting this week in Atlanta.

Pulling this idea together meant coordinating stakeholders who have reason to make this work:

• The Council of Juvenile Court Judges technology committee would create a dictionary of defined data elements to be used for the statewide reporting of all juvenile justice data. An electronic exchange that complies with U.S. Justice Department global justice data sharing standards would be created to share the information.
• Data would be accessible through a new electronic repository that would be maintained in a partnership between the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Information would be updated daily and would be available to individual courts and for statewide reporting purposes.
• Further, the Department of Juvenile Justice would fund the entire project because it is the single state entity that is responsible for housing youth and state juvenile records.

The Council recommendation does not include a fiscal note. It also does not propose legislation during the 2015 General Assembly. Next year would be devoted to creating and launching the model under the auspices of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the CCJR with an expectation that the dictionary and its usage would be recommended as a state law in 2016.

In the juvenile justice oversight committee meeting on Tuesday, December 2, CCJR co-chair Thomas Worthy said there is “concern over not only what we are collecting but how we do it.” The electronic data dictionary and exchange would focus on pre-disposition risk assessment, detention assessment data and overall juvenile case disposition.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had in general including juvenile courts is data and we have it across the broad spectrum of agencies in the state,” said Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs who co-chairs the Council with Worthy. “We’ve got a lot of duplication of effort, a lot of collection of data that will ultimately drive public policy but only if it is accurate.”

The Council’s 2014 final report due next month will also include recommendations to change how the state handles adult misdemeanor probation. This political hot potato came into focus during 2014 when an internal state audit was highly critical of privately-managed misdemeanor probation practices. This year Governor Deal vetoed a misdemeanor probation reform bill because he felt that it lacked transparency. The state Supreme Court also ruled on a private probation case in November.

The Council’s final report will be submitted to Governor Deal and the Legislature in mid-to-late January. The 2015 General Assembly opens on Monday, January 12, at the State Capitol in Atlanta.

(Mike Klein has held executive leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  His justice articles have been republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Right on Crime” initiative.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

December 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Approves Aggressive Blueprint for Prisoner Reentry Initiative

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Georgia criminal justice reform will push the pedal hard over the next several months with rapid expansion of the state’s prisoner reentry initiative. Millions of federal grant dollars will become seed money for fifteen pilot project sites starting now through the 2017 calendar year. The goal is to give released inmates a better chance to succeed when they go outside the walls.

“If we really want to impact statewide recidivism reduction we’ve got to make sure we are targeting our resources on the right individuals and, by the way, the right interventions as well,” says Jay Neal, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.

The state Council on Criminal Justice Reform voted to approve a three-year prisoner reentry initiative (GA-PRI) when it met this week in Atlanta. The Council also approved a presentation Georgia will make during a Pew Charitable Trusts conference next month in San Diego.

Recidivism is the rate at which prisoners are re-arrested for a felony crime within three years of their prison release. Georgia’s historic rate has hovered at about 30 percent. The GA-PRI goal is to reduce recidivism to 25 percent within two more years and 24 percent within five years.

Last month the U.S. Justice Department said Georgia will receive $6 million over three years to support prisoner reentry. The breakdown is $3 million for recidivism reduction, $1.75 million for faith-based prison in-reach, $750,000 for pardons and parole and $500,000 to improve justice information systems. New employee salaries and benefits will be paid by the federal grants for one year before those positions transition to state budget dollars.

The 2015-year pilot projects are in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah. Ten pilot locations have been selected for 2016 and 2017 but not the order in which they will launch before the initiative is expanded statewide by the end of the 2018 calendar year.

Neal describes GA-PRI as “one plan, one strategy” but he also says, “We’re going to see that our local councils are not going to look the same from one site to the next. Reentry plans are not going to be identical because each site has a different set of assets and barriers and gaps and quite frankly, a different set of returning citizens who are coming back as well.”

The heart of this initiative is to provide former offenders with improved health and mental health services, housing and employment opportunities, training and more consistent positive contact. Neal warned the council that Georgia should not waste “an incredible opportunity’ to build upon some of the early successes since GA-PRI launched about one year ago.

The Pew National Conference on Justice Reinvestment will be held in November in San Diego. Georgia will discuss the impact of reforms before and since the Council was created in 2011. Adult criminal justice, juvenile justice and prisoner reentry policies were addressed in the 2012 – 2014 legislatures. Here is some of the data Georgia will present:

• Adults in custody declined from 60,818 in 2007 to 56,203 in 2014.
• Adults on probation increased from 142,663 in 2007 to 165,494 in 2014.
• Adults on parole increased from 20,823 in 2007 to 25,195 in 2014.
• The adult violent offender population increased from 60% in 2007 to 68% in 2014.
• The adult non-violent offender population decreased from 40% in 2007 to 32% in 2014.
• County jail backlog expenditures declined from $25 million in 2012 to $40,000 in 2014 after the statewide adoption of mandatory electronic sentencing packages.
• County jail populations are down from 94% capacity in 2010 to 78% capacity in 2014.

The Council agenda for November includes discussion on several possible recommendations:

• Creation of a juvenile justice “data dictionary” to ensure common language is used.
• Standardization of juvenile court data exchanges to create uniformity across the state.
• Adoption of a universal school discipline code to standardize juvenile discipline.
• More discussion about community-based juvenile detention alternatives.
• A hard focus on adult misdemeanor private probation transparency proposals.
• Potential changes to “life without parole” for non-violent recidivist drug offenders.
• Clarifications to criminal records expungement under the adult “First Offender Act”.
• Other topics could also be placed on the agenda.

The Council will schedule at least one December meeting before issuing its final report that is due to Governor Nathan Deal before the General Assembly returns on January 12, 2015.

(Mike Klein is a journalist who has held management and content leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

October 31, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Smart on Georgia Crime Moves Beyond Getting Tough

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Not long ago, the national philosophy behind criminal justice policy was to lock offenders away and teach them a lesson. This was popular with politicians who found that it played well before crowds and it was popular in communities where prisons and jails created jobs. Some folks even seemed to celebrate the idea that prisons were real hellholes.

This philosophy worked great if you did not care about creating better citizens in people who had made a mistake but could be rehabilitated; if you did not want to think about the effect of mingling juveniles with hardened adult criminals; if you did not care about the spiraling cost to support the expansion of incarceration — just a few of many things you could avoid thinking about.

No one reason caused inmate populations to expand but many contributed: declining family structures; more children with one biological parent or none; the failure of families to emphasize learning; neighborhoods without jobs; the widespread availability of illegal narcotics; the dependency society mindset in which government is expected to pay everyone’s bills; you can go on and on.

Some insightful people began to understand that criminal justice expenditures could not expand forever. Ohio did some good work in the mid-1990s but the reform movement really took hold after Texas began to implement community-based alternatives to incarceration about seven years ago.

Nobody has ever accused Texas of being soft on crime. The Texas Public Policy Foundation was a real reform driver, as was the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Today, the evidence points to Georgia as a national leader.

Five years ago, Georgia was on the cusp of a criminal justice meltdown. The state’s adult prison population had doubled over two decades to 56,000 inmates and the incarceration budget had doubled to $1 billion per year. That did not include the costs to administer probation and parole.  And it was projected to get worse: The prison system would need to house 60,000 inmates by 2016, costing $264 million for new prison construction. All the annual operational costs were above and beyond the projected capital investment.

Prisons and jails were overcrowded and budgets were blowing up. It was ugly.

This week, however, encouraging trends were reported at the criminal justice reform council meeting in Atlanta:

  • The state has reduced its adult prison population to 52,000 inmates.
  • The number of annual new prison commitments is down from 21,600 in 2009 to 18,000 last year.
  • Statewide, total jail populations are down from 44,000 four years ago to about 37,000 today.
  • Non-violent, low-risk offenders who would have been in prison now have a better chance to succeed in community-based programs.

There is more: By getting state-sentenced inmates out of county jails more quickly, the state reduced its annual payments to county jailers from $25 million in FY 2012 to just $40,000 in FY 2014, which ended in June. This was possible, in part, because every county now files its sentencing papers electronically, saving days, weeks, even months.

At the same time, thanks to new juvenile community-based alternative programs, state juvenile courts reduced new youth secure detention commitments by 62 percent between October 2013 and June 2014. More than 1,600 youths were kept out of secure detention.

The sea change that made changes like this possible started with Governor Nathan Deal in 2011, when his executive order created a criminal justice reform council to differentiate between serious, hardened felons and people who pose little or no risk to public safety. The phrase that you often hear is to create a distinction between people who scare us and people who make us mad. Is a non-violent personal drug addict better off in substance abuse care or bunking with a killer?

The encouraging news you have read about here should not be interpreted as more than a very optimistic report about changes that will take years to implement. Indeed, the Council continues to wrestle with how to reintegrate released former offenders back into the community. Putting them away is hard, giving them the best possible chance to succeed once they return home is even more complicated.

That said, there is nothing wrong with pausing to celebrate something that is working.

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

September 17, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Astonishing Early Results from Georgia Juvenile Justice Reform

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Buoyed by freshly funded incarceration alternatives, Georgia reduced new juvenile justice detention commitments by an astonishing 62 percent during the nine month period that ended in June. As a result, the average daily secure population rate is also trending down as is the length of time juveniles are waiting for a detention center placement.

“While it’s still early, we feel great about where we are,” Department of Juvenile Justice assistant deputy commissioner Joe Vignati told the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform on Tuesday, September 9. This was the Council’s first meeting since May although several committees met during the summer.

DJJ Deputy Commissioner Carl Brown led off with an historical overview of Georgia juvenile justice that recalled a $300 million annual budget in 2012, nearly two thirds of that amount spent on secure detention at $90,000 per bed per year. Brown said traditionally 25 percent of youths were incarcerated for low level offenses, misdemeanors and status offenses. Forty percent were assessed as being low risk to re-offend.

Juvenile justice was the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform Council’s principal focus and it resulted in a new way of thinking about kids. Juveniles who commit the most serious crimes and who pose a threat to public safety should be incarcerated and dealt with appropriately, but there would be new community-based program options for kids who primarily are just dysfunctional, sometimes severely so, but without criminal intentions.

House Bill 242 created a framework for alternative programs. Governor Nathan Deal’s FY 2014-15 budgets provided more than $13 million to help create community-based services. The first measurement is the nine-month period that began in October 2013 and ended in June. “Here’s the big bang, what have we achieved?” said DJJ assistant deputy commissioner Joe Vignati.

During the 2012 calendar year juvenile court judges sentenced 2,603 youths to incarceration. That became the base year with an objective goal to reduce the number by 15 percent or 390 fewer juveniles sentenced to incarceration between October 2013 and June 2014. Instead of 15 percent it was 62 percent and instead of 390 fewer sentences it was 1,614 fewer sentences.

Youths incarcerated at secure facilities declined 14 percent from 1,673 in October 2013 to 1,440 in June 2014. The number of youths awaiting a detention bed placement was down from 269 at the beginning of October 2013 to 157 at the end of June 2014, and it continues to improve.

“As of yesterday it’s my understanding that we have only 39 youth awaiting placement,” Vignati told the Council. “This is important because we make sure we are getting kids where they need to be. Also, now we are able to operate safe, secure facilities. We don’t have overcrowding.”

To learn more, watch these YouTube Channel videos recorded at the meeting:

Juvenile Justice Presentation, Part One

Juvenile Justice Presentation, Part Two

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

September 17, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

New Criminal Justice Reform Council Proposed Through 2023

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia would establish an ongoing criminal justice reform council to oversee adult and juvenile justice issues in the state as part of proposed sentencing and corrections legislation being considered by lawmakers this session.

In addition, adult criminal court judges would be allowed to depart from minimum mandatory sentences in a significantly small number of drug trafficking cases under legislation now before a House committee.  Many of the provisions in HB 349 were developed by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  The Special Council’s juvenile justice recommendations are contained in HB 242.

This week will be important for both pieces of legislation.  Tuesday afternoon, the House Judiciary committee members voted to pass HB 242 as expected.  HB 349 had its first hearing Friday afternoon, and a second hearing is anticipated on Thursday.

The extension of the Council process that began two years ago provides a strong indication criminal that reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system and effectively implementing the new policies will remain a priority for at least ten years.  The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform was authorized by the 2011 General Assembly to focus on adults.  Governor Nathan Deal used an executive order to keep the Council intact to focus on juveniles.

Under HB 349, a new Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform would be created for ten years through June 2023.  As currently drafted, legislation stipulates the Governor would name five-of-15 members, including the chairman.  Terms would be four years with possible reappointment.  The judiciary, state agencies, sheriffs, prosecutors and public defenders would have representation.

The Council would conduct biennial adult and juvenile system reviews.  It would have authority to retain outside consultants and it would be attached to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families for staff and funding.

This is the second consecutive year that the Special Council recommended that Superior Court judges should be allowed discretion from mandatory minimum sentences in a small number of drug trafficking cases.  “Our drug statutes are very rarely capturing the kingpins who we were intending to capture.  You’re generally capturing the mules,” Special Council co-chair and Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs told a House committee Friday afternoon.

Last year state prisons admitted 2,672 inmates who were convicted of drug trafficking.  Fewer than 5 percent – 129 inmates – would have qualified for possible reduced sentences.  Georgia law stipulates five-to-25-year minimum sentences based on the weight and type of drug.  If enacted, changes would allow judges to reduce sentences and fines by up to 50 percent.

Defendants would be eligible for reduced sentences if they met all five requirements:  A) No prior felony conviction; B) was not a ringleader of the conduct; C) did not use a weapon; D) the criminal conduct did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any victim; and, E) the judge determines justice would not be well served by imposing the minimum mandatory sentence.

“The bill does not abolish mandatory minimums for drug trafficking,” Boggs said. “All it does is set a lower minimum threshold that the judge could consider under appropriate circumstances.  The judge is not required to deviate, only that the judge may.”  (Click here to watch testimony.)

The bill also proposes more judicial discretion to minimum mandatory sentences for serious violent offenders, sexual offenders and repeat offenders.  Criminal court judges could impose less than a minimum mandatory sentence upon agreement of the court, the prosecution and the defense. The legislation outlines several requirements that must be met for consideration.

HB 349 would change state law that requires prosecutors must prove a defendant “knowingly” trafficked drugs of a specific type and weight.  If enacted as written, HB 349 says prosecutors would not be required to prove a drug trafficking defendant knew the weight of illegal drugs.  Trafficking laws would become consistent with simple possession laws that passed last year.

Not everything in HB 349 originated with the Special Council.  Prosecutors are pushing a change that would allow direct appeal to the Court of Appeals of Georgia or the state Supreme Court if a lower court excludes prosecutorial evidence submitted during pre-trial.  An appeal above the trial court level could be triggered if prosecutors certify to the trial court that the excluded evidence is “substantial proof” in the case against the defendant.

Defense attorneys fear a virtually automatic evidentiary appeal to a higher court would delay trials.  “The party who is going to suffer most would be an indigent person who cannot afford to make a bond,” McDonough attorney Scott Key said Friday, “because as that case is delayed that person may languish in the county jail, behind the wire and in the hard bed at the expense of the county taxpayers.”  Key said long-term delays in molestation cases would potentially “worsen the trauma of the victim who has a pending case.”  (Click here to view testimony.)

HB 349 would expand judicial protections to children who witnessed sexual contact or physical abuse against another child.  Last year the state Supreme Court reversed a ruling from several years ago that said children who are witnesses are not afforded equal protections.  HB 349 would take the 2012 Supreme Court opinion and enact it as law.  (Click here to view testimony.)

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

February 20, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Juvenile Justice Bill Would Revise Designated Felony Act

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

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.)

February 11, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hunstein: Georgia at “Crossroads in Juvenile Justice History”

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein declared the state is at a “crossroads in juvenile justice history” and challenged the General Assembly to expand mental health services for “clearly disturbed youngsters” during her final State of the Judiciary address, telling lawmakers, “We wait for the explosion and it will come” unless courts have more resources for dealing with juveniles who are clearly at risk to themselves and others.

Hunstein delivered her final State of the Judiciary Address to the General Assembly Thursday morning in Atlanta.  Her term as Chief Justice expires later this year.  Hunstein devoted a major section of her remarks to adult and juvenile justice system reforms.  Legislators enacted the start of adult reforms in 2012; this year they will consider a large juvenile justice system bill.

“What does a judge do with a chronic runaway girl who comes before him with untreated mental health problems and a history of being sexually exploited while living on the streets?  What does a judge do with the boy who repeatedly is charged with shoplifting but whose family is seriously dysfunctional?” Hunstein told lawmakers.

“Most juvenile judges say they do not want to send these children to locked facilities, but with no community resources and fearing for the children’s safety, they feel they have no alternative.  As one juvenile judge recently wrote, without resources at home, detention becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool in the toolbox.”

Chief Justice Hunstein opened her 27-minute address with a summary of adult reforms that are underway based on recommendations made in 2011 by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Diversion of non-violent offenders away from costly prison beds into alternative programs has enabled the state to slow the growth of its prison population.  Hunstein said the state is “on track to save $264 million in five years.”  Fewer state inmates are being held in county jails.  Twelve new drug and mental health courts opened last along with several substance abuse and mental health treatment centers.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein

The Chief Justice also emphasized “the beginning of a new way of handling long-term inmates who have served many years – sometimes decades – in prison.  The fact is that 95 percent of this state’s 57,000 prison inmates will eventually walk out of prison; only 5 percent will die there.”  Last month state Pardons and Paroles began to assign “max-out” inmates to residential transition centers six months before their final release date.

“But the best measure of success is counted in the many individual lives that are being changed daily as a result of these accountability courts,” Hunstein said.  She added, “I have been honored to receive personal letters from a number of the graduates.  One graduate wrote: ‘On October 31, I went to court and regained full custody of my 6-year-old son, Nicholas.  It was the happiest day of my life other than the day he was born.  I am so grateful for the opportunity of giving back when I, for so long, took away.”

The General Assembly is waiting to see legislation that would dramatically realign the state’s juvenile justice system, completely rethink the antiquated juvenile civil code and, expected in a separate bill, put a few new tools into adult system reforms from last year.

“Today, we as Georgians – and as a nation – stand at a crossroads in juvenile justice history,” Hunstein told Senate and House members.  “We have learned just as we did with adult criminal justice that cracking down on juvenile crime is not enough.  We also must be smart about juvenile crime and take action to reduce it.”

Hunstein said based on average daily population, 2,000 youths are detained in youth long-term detention centers that are the equivalent of adult prisons, youth short-term detention centers or residential programs such as group homes.  The Chief Justice said more than half committed non-violent offenses, 40 percent are considered low-risk and one-quarter were adjudicated for a misdemeanor or status offense that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.

The state spends $91,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in youth prison, vastly more than $19,000 spent per year to incarcerate an adult.  Hunstein said, “The difference in cost is based on young people’s educational and other needs that must be met under state and federal laws.

“But consider the return we get on every dollar spent housing these juveniles:  Of the 619 children in our youth prisons, nearly 65 percent will commit another offense within three years of getting out – and nearly every one of them will get out.

“We know one thing for certain:  Spending $91,000 a year to lock up a juvenile and getting 65 percent recidivism is not working,” Hunstein said.  “We can be smarter with taxpayer dollars.  More importantly, we can produce a safer Georgia.”

Juvenile justice reform legislation is expected to emphasize expansion of community treatment options when incarceration is not required and would not benefit a juvenile. Governor Nathan Deal included a $5 million line item in next year’s budget to help jump start these programs.

Presiding Justice Hugh Thompson will succeed Hunstein as Chief Justice later this year.

(Click here to read Chief Justice Carol Hunstein’s complete address as delivered.)

(Click here to watch the State of the Judiciary video archive.)

Right on Crime(This article was republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.)

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

February 7, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mental Health is a Huge Issue” in Georgia Justice Strategies

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center Wednesday when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol.  “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.

Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals.   This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code.  Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.

The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in Wednesday’s hearing.

Adult corrections commissioner Brian Owens said the state has opened alternative treatment centers in seven rural judicial circuits and this year plans to open four-to-seven more.  Two facilities were opened to treat “dually diagnosed offenders”; Owens described them as persons with mental illness who attempt to medicate themselves with legal prescriptions or illegal drugs.  The state has also opened a new residential substance abuse treatment center for males.

These options give the state capability to treat about 5,000 non-violent offenders per year in community settings rather than prisons.  “Georgia, I believe, is really at the forefront of dealing with criminal addiction (and) criminal mental health issues,” Owens said, “applying mental health resources in the community before offenders get too far down the road and we suffer a tragedy.”

2013 State of the State Address(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

2013 State of the State Address
(Photo Courtesy Alana Joyner, Office of the Governor)

Governor Deal’s Fiscal 2014 budget contains $11.6 million for the continued expansion of drug and mental health accountability courts for non-violent offenders who need community-based treatment more than they need incarceration; this builds on $10 million that Deal inserted for the same purpose into the Fiscal 2013 budget.   Next year’s proposed budget also contains a $5 million line item to create incentives to start community-based juvenile treatment options.

That is good news for juvenile judges.  “I welcome prevention dollars,” said Judge Shearer, who is president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been a juvenile court judge since 1993.  Shearer said, “The pendulum of whether we emphasize prevention or penalties kind of swings back and forth.  A prevention dollar is a dollar well spent.”  Shearer noted, “We are seeing children from birth until they become adults.”

By the numbers, the state adult corrections system has some 57,500 inmates and 162,600 on felony probation.  The budget is about $1.1 billion per year to support adult corrections.  The annual per bed cost for an adult inmate is about $18,000, but that cost increases for older inmates who require more advanced health care.

This week the juvenile justice system, a separate entity, had 1,741 in secure confinement and 11,941 on community supervision.  The juvenile justice department budget is $300 million. DJJ makes contact with about 52,000 juveniles per calendar year.  The annual per bed cost for a committed juvenile is above $90,000, higher than adult incarceration cost for many reasons including, DJJ operates its own school system.

Those financial numbers do not tell a complete story.  State pardons and paroles has a budget near $53 million.  Juvenile system officials, including the juvenile courts, interact with many other state agencies, making it hard to determine exactly what the state directly spends on juveniles and their justice issues.  The state easily spends $1.4 billion annually on adult and juvenile justice without factoring in even one cent of what it costs to run state and local courts.

Proposals from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — for adults and juveniles — focus on how to protect the public, reduce public expense and reduce recidivism, which is the percentage of juveniles who are re-adjudicated or adults convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release.  More than 50 percent of juveniles re-enter the justice system within three years and more than 30 percent of adults re-offend.

Owens said the number of state inmates being held in county jails is significantly down.  Twelve months ago county jails held 900 males waiting for placement in a probation detention center.  Today there are no males and about 200 females.  That is important to local governments because the state does not reimburse counties for inmates who are waiting for probation detention center placement. “Our counties will save money,” Owens said.

Juvenile justice commissioner Avery Niles told legislators, “We have become an agency that deals with both youths and adults in a juvenile setting.”  Niles was DJJ board chairman until two months ago when Governor Deal moved him to the commissioner’s office.  Niles said that about half of juveniles who enter the corrections system have drug addictions.  He described the overall population as “older, more aggressive and staying longer.”  Ninety percent of youths in DJJ custody are now designated felons.

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

(This article was republished by Right on Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.)

Right on Crime

January 24, 2013 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

End of an Era: Georgia Begins to Close Parole Offices

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgia is moving quickly toward the end of an era as parole offices are being closed at a pace that will see most of them completely shuttered within the next calendar year.  A handful already are closed, about another dozen will close within weeks and the remainder will close as the state moves away from real estate toward reliance on parole officer-friendly remote technology.

“The day of the parolee reporting to a parole office is long gone,” said Michael Nail, executive director of the state board of Pardons and Paroles.  Virtual offices – two-man parole teams in vehicles – will replace real estate.  “Our officers will be in the community where parolees reside and work and it’s no longer parolees coming to where the parole officer works,” Nail said.  Teams are equipped with Android devices that connect to a Google.Gov platform.

The Pardons and Paroles board expects to save $1 million when contracts expire on leased office space statewide.  From a previous high of 48 parole offices, the state currently has about 40 still open.  Nail said 13 will close in December and nearly all others within 12-to-18 months. Those that remain open in state buildings will often share space with state probation employees.

The decision to move away from real estate and toward two-man mobile parole teams is equal parts the reality of the state budget and evidence of success that Pardons and Paroles has witnessed since it began a voice recognition parolee call-in reporting experiment.  A call-in pilot program that began 18 months ago with 1,300 parolees has expanded to almost 3,400.

Pardons and Paroles is its own agency, not part of the Department of Corrections, and it has a current fiscal year budget of just under $52.7 million.  Like nearly all state agencies it has been asked to propose 3 percent in cuts, or about $1.6 million, for the fiscal year that starts in July.  Closing under-utilized offices and moving personnel into the field is part of absorbing that cut.

Georgia has about 23,000 former penitentiary inmates on parole.  Almost one-third who have been successful under regular parole supervision are considered low-risk to re-offend or pose a public safety risk.  Starting in summer 2011 the state began to assign low-risk parolees to a voice recognition system in which the parolee is required to report by phone.  Software developed by Atlanta-based Anytrax can identify individual parolees and the service is available in multiple languages.

Nail said the model has succeeded on several levels.  First, just 1.7 percent of parolees who were assigned to voice recognition reporting have re-entered the system for technical violations or a new criminal charge. Second, the number of cases assigned to parole officers has declined from about 75 to about 40 with increased face-to-face emphasis on higher-risk parolees.  Third, the agency determined it does not need to maintain leases on costly real estate.

“This is what we were able to do to meet the mandated reductions,” Nail said.  “If we had not gone down that road the only thing you can cut or reduce is staff and personnel.”  The state parolee population is up about 10 percent over ten years but the number of case workers has declined about 10 percent over the past five years.  No case worker expansion is anticipated.

Pardons and Paroles has also begun an enhanced house arrest monitoring pilot project in which cell phones combined with voice recognition technology are used to track the location of parolees.  Cell phone technology enables parole officers to identify a parolee’s exact location. Think of this as a GPS type technology without GPS costs.   Anytrax charges $7 per month per parolee enrolled in its services; that cost is charged to parolees and is not paid by state dollars.

None of these changes is directly tied to criminal justice reform measures that were adopted by the 2012 Legislature and which are currently being implemented statewide.  However, voice recognition tracking and creative uses of cell phone technology are examples of innovation developed in the private sector that can be successfully applied in the public sector.

“Sometimes philosophically in government and the public safety arena we get in the mindset that we are the only ones who can effectively do our business,” Nail said.  “This has shown us we can be more effective when we reach out and find others who can assist us doing our job.”

Nail added, “This is what community supervision ought to be all about.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

This article was republished by Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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November 30, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment