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Pew Poll: Solid Real World Support for Juvenile Justice Reform

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Georgians appear ready to embrace juvenile justice reforms that would focus the state’s lock-ups on higher-level offenders and put new emphasis on less expensive and more effective community resources for lower-level offenders.  And by Georgians, we mean folks out there in the real world, well beyond the State Capitol in Atlanta.

A newly released poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project found proposed reforms in HB 242 enjoy widespread support among conservatives, liberals and independents.  The bill would enact recommendations from the 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. HB 242 is scheduled for its first Senate hearing on Wednesday; it unanimously passed the House.

The Special Council found that the state’s secure residential facilities cost an average of about $90,000 per bed per year.  Despite these huge expenditures, more than 50 percent of the adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release.

To address this poor return on investment, the Council produced a set of recommendations that have been included in HB 242 that would revise the juvenile designated felony act, reduce the number of lower-risk youthful offenders sent to secure facilities, emphasize community resources for lower-level juveniles and provide funding to help create or expand local programs.

In the survey, 92 percent of Georgians agreed that expensive facilities should be reserved for higher risk juveniles and alternatives that cost less should be available for lower-risk juveniles.

Governor Nathan Deal made juvenile justice reform a priority in his State of the State address.  “Let’s capitalize on the success that we have already had in criminal justice reform,” Deal said with a nod to last year’s adult corrections reform legislation contained in HB 1176.  Deal called for “community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders.”

“Georgians strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives to secure facilities,” stated the pollsters in the Pew-commissioned Public Attitudes on the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia.”   Six hundred registered voters participated in the survey.

When pollsters asked whether Georgia should “send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to a secure facility and use some of the savings to create a stronger probation system that holds juvenile offenders accountable for their crimes,” the answer was “Yes” from Democrats (91 percent), Republicans (86 percent) and Independents (83 percent).

Sixty-nine percent said strict probation supervision, counseling and remaining with families in their own homes were more likely than secure facilities to reduce the rate at which juveniles would commit new crimes.  Again, that was the view of Democrats (76 percent), Independents (68 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).

When asked about specific proposals from the Special Council that are included in HB 242, 92 percent of Georgians agreed the juvenile designated felony act should be rewritten to differentiate between more serious felonies such as murder and less serious offenses such as “smash-and-grab” burglary.  Support among voters who identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans or Independents ranged between 90-to-97 percent.

When asked about creating a fiscal incentive grant program to reward counties that send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to expensive state facilities by sharing some of the savings to reinvest in local programs – a proposal Governor Deal announced in his State of the State address – 85 percent of Georgians agreed. Again, support was consistently strong among Republicans (89 percent), Democrats (83 percent) and Independents (81 percent).

“Across the political spectrum, Georgians want a system that protects public safety, holds juvenile offenders accountable and contains corrections spending,” said Jason Newman, a public safety expert with The Pew Charitable Trusts.  “Georgia voters strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear HB 242 testimony at 4:00 p.m. Wednesday in room 307 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building at the State Capitol.  Adult corrections system reforms that passed the House in HB 349 will be discussed in a Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee hearing that starts at 3:00 p.m., also at the same location.

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

March 13, 2013 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

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