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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

Less Time, More Treatment Possible for Low-Risk Drug Abuse

Mike Klein

Next month the Georgia legislature will begin to consider whether substance abusers who are not a public safety risk should receive a stay out of jail card.  How lawmakers decide the question could slow down runaway costs and impact state corrections policy for decades.

Last month the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform said options – notably, more drug courts and treatment plus more day reporting centers — could reduce state prison population growth.  Drug courts are part of an accountability sentencing movement that includes mental health courts and veterans’ courts.  Here is what the council said about substance abuse:

“In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who have never been to prison before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions last year.  Looking more closely at drug admissions, more than 3,200 offenders are admitted to prison each year on a drug possession conviction (as opposed to a sales or trafficking conviction), and two-thirds of these inmates are assessed as being a lower-risk to re-offend.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

Harder-on-crime ideas took hold in the early 1990s. The number of Georgia inmates doubled over 20 years and grew 35 percent since 2000 to 56,000 today.  As incarceration soared so did budgets; Georgia spends above $1 billion per year on adult corrections, up from $490 million in 1990.  Including pardons and parole and probation and the annual cost is closer to $1.5 billion.

Georgia’s inmate population grows 6-to-8 percent annually.  Special council member and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said that is “simply not sustainable.”  Oliver added, “We spend $13 per day on drug court offenders and approximately $48 per day on individuals in prison.  We have better recidivism rates on drug court offenders.  That is compelling to me.”

In August, the National Conference of State Legislatures said inmates incarcerated for drug offenses are 20 percent of state prison populations nationwide and more than half of all inmates are abusers or drug dependents.  The NCSL report was compiled in a partnership with the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.  Pew is also consulting with Georgia.

Special Council Chair Judge Todd Markle

Governor Nathan Deal named Atlanta Superior Court Judge Todd Markle, his former executive counsel, to chair the special council.  Recently the Policy Foundation asked Markle about prison time vs. drug courts and treatment for drug offenders who are not considered a safety risk.

“You have to consider whether what we’ve done for 20-to-30 years — locking people up for drug offenses — is the best way to treat those folks.  We know a lot more about addictions and behavior issues than we did years ago.  We know a lot of these addiction best practices can work.  People philosophically have to get over the idea that people who have drug addictions are criminals.  In a lot of cases, we’re going to need to address these as health issues.”

The special council reported Georgia has 33 drug courts that cover less than 50 percent of the state’s counties and serve fewer than 3,000 offenders.  The state operates 13 day reporting centers and just three probation substance treatment centers. That suggests a big opportunity exists to catch up with states that already expanded drug courts and other treatment options.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein

Texas increased alternative program funds in 2007.  Kentucky and South Carolina approved probation and treatment for low-risk substance abusers last year.  California’s successful San Francisco pilot program started in 2005 was expanded statewide in 2009.  The Kansas plan adopted in 2003 includes residential treatment settings and stiff sanctions for new violations.

“This is an opportunity to address the demand side of drug addiction and for those who have an addiction, to really get themselves sober and not continue to offend,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who served on the criminal justice special council.

Georgia judicial circuits can expand drug courts without legislation.  The special council model would re-direct dollars saved in the penitentiary system to provide for courts and treatment. Legislation would be needed to change criminality levels based on the weight of illegal drugs.

“You cannot build drug courts from the top down,” said Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs, who also is a council member.  “You have to build from the bottom up.  It is meaningless for me to go to the southwestern judicial circuit and advocate that their judges start a drug court if they have no meaningful way to deliver the services.”

Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs

The special council estimated that $264 million might be saved if the state can avoid new prison construction for at least four years.  This thought from special council chair Judge Markle:  “If we try to kick this down the road where would we come up with that money?  Even we were in better economic times, I’m not sure we could come up with the money.”

Whatever emerges from the General Assembly will likely be a first step.  Governor Deal said the special council will remain in place and he described its work as just a starting point.

“Will a majority of what the Council recommended pass this legislative session?  Probably not but I think the discussion will begin and I hope it will be an educational process for legislators,” said Chief Justice Hunstein.  “We want our communities to be safer.  We want to reduce recidivism.”

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

December 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment