There was much to celebrate this May as Gov. Deal signed the Juvenile Justice Reform Bill into law.
UUCA members, child advocates and a host of partners worked tirelessly with legislators for two years to get this ground-breaking legislation passed. For five years before that, a smaller group, that also included UUCA members, worked to bring stakeholders to consensus and write the law that was submitted.
Why is the juvenile justice bill important?
As Governor Deal signed House Bill 242, Georgia joined a short list of states making sweeping changes aimed at slowing the ballooning costs of incarceration while also steering petty offenders away from a life of crime.
Under the measure, Georgia will lock up fewer juvenile offenders and send those accused of less serious crimes to community-based programs. It also will seek to address the root causes of minor offenses such as truancy, running away or being unruly.
Once the youth law takes effect on January 1, 2014, so-called “status offenders” arrested for minor offenses won’t go into the criminal justice system at all. Instead they will be sent to social services programs equipped to address the underlying reasons for their trouble, often found in their home lives.
Teenagers accused of misdemeanors and low-level crimes like drug possession will not be sentenced to a juvenile prison. Instead they will be diverted to community-based programs.
Those who commit designated felonies will be separated into two categories. Crimes in which no one is hurt will mean no more than 18 months locked up plus another 1 ½ years of intensive probation. Designated felons who harm someone could be locked up for as many as five years.
Georgia currently has 1,820 juveniles in either a short-term regional youth detention center or at a youth development campus, akin to a prison for adults. Forecasts show 640 fewer teenagers locked up in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities, saving $91,000 a year per bed.
Advocates say money saved will go into expanding community-based programs now in place in only a few counties, such as Clayton and Newton. Georgia has $6 million in state and federal dollars to spend on pilot programs. To prepare for the January 1 effective date of the law, the state has already asked dozens of juvenile courts and local groups for proposals for community-level juvenile justice programs.
Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske explains, “We are having a lot of low risk kids who have very high needs because of family dysfunction going into these (youth detention centers) with razor wire fences.
“They don’t belong here. We’re making them worse, resulting in a 65 percent recidivism rate when they get out.” Judge Teske has served in the Clayton County juvenile courts since 1999 and a frequent national speaker on this subject.