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“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

Right on Crime: Conservative Values to Create Justice Solutions

Mike Klein

Conservatives who want to change criminal justice public policy have another new resource at their disposal. Right on Crime will be unveiled by the Texas Public Policy Foundation during a Wednesday news conference and panel discussion at Americans for Tax Reform headquarters in Washington DC.

Right on Crime is a disciplined commitment to bring conservative values to justice solutions much as conservatives focused earlier on education.  It leaves the starting gate armed with a robust website supplemented by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages.  Early support is coming from conservative icons Newt Gingrich, Edwin Meese and many others.

Project founder Marc Levin is Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Levin is a frequent national speaker and just last month he joined the Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative briefing criminal justice panel.  When we spoke Tuesday afternoon I asked Levin what concerns him most about criminal justice public policy.

“The thing that keeps standing out to me is the broader question of accountability and results,” Levin said.  “It seems to me that with criminal justice systems, at every stage funding expands based on the number of inmates and people on probation.  We know how many people are in the system, but what is the recidivism rate?”

Levin pointed to the obvious but disturbing statistic that criminal justice system state and local spending grows when inmate rehabilitation fails.  More prisoners result in more spending.  More people return to prison when they have not been rehabilitated, which requires more spending.

“By in large, front line people are trying to do their best but I think we have a system in place that doesn’t really reward results,” Levin said. “If you look at education, conservatives pushed merit pay and accountability but I see criminal justice being way behind education.  I really think there is a great need for conservatives to bring the same scrutiny to criminal justice.”

Right on Crime’s primary website and other social media products are designed to influence how legislators think about justice policy.  Conservatives won new majorities in 19 statehouses and more than 600 new conservative state legislators will take office next year.  The opportunity to address effective justice policy from a conservative viewpoint might never have been better.

The Right on Crime new website contains writings by free market think tank journalists and analysts.  Levin said the project will emphasize juvenile justice and victim issues.  There are 22 state profiles, including one for Georgia.  The site contains subsections on principles to reduce crime, reduce costs, reform offenders, make restitution to victims and protect communities.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation endorsed Right on Crime’s statement of principles.

Several videos are posted on the organization’s new YouTube channel.  Facebook is finding friends and reporting news; the first item: Texas must cut some $300 million from corrections because of budget shortfalls.  Twitter is the home for justice news updates from across the country.  The primary website also supports an RSS feed.

Levin will be joined in Washington by Texas Public Policy Foundation president Brooke Rollins, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Pat Nolan of Justice Fellowship and David Keene of the American Conservative Union.  Folks who want to know more can visit RightonCrime.com to register for an electronic newsletter.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

December 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment