2013 was a banner year for juvenile justice. The state legislature passed and Gov. Deal signed the most sweeping overhaul of the juvenile law in 40 years. UUCA member voices, as part of a broad-based coalition, worked for more than five years to get the legislation written and passed.
This monumental reform will be a sea-change. For a long time, Georgia has locked up not only the children that scare us, but also those kids that we are simply mad at.
The majority of offenses committed by Georgia youth are non-violent, and the recidivism rate among youth who spend time in youth detention centers has been increasing. The new law addresses this reality.
“Now,” said Gov. Deal, “finally, we can stop locking up the kids we’re just mad at, and instead intervene to keep them from going down the path of criminal behavior and ruined lives.”
The state appropriated five million dollars in 2013 to fund community intervention programs in 44 counties, including most of the metro Atlanta counties. Instead of sending kids to very expensive youth jails, most non-violent offenders will participate in programs in their communities.
Georgia received high praise from MacArthur Foundation, which said Georgia is a “shining example of a broad based coalition” and a bellwether state for national juvenile justice reform.
SCHOOL DISCIPLINE POLICIES
As the new juvenile laws are being implemented, attention of child advocates is turning to the issue of public school discipline policies. In Georgia, as in many states, local school district policies make extensive use of serious disciplinary action for relatively minor misbehavior. In addition, disciplinary action is being imposed on African-American students at a rate significantly greater than that group’s percentage of the public school population.
“Zero tolerance” policies force kids out of class and increase their likelihood of dropping out permanently. Advocates refer to this as the “school to prison pipeline” – kids are suspended from school, get behind, fail, drop out and cannot find work, break the law and land in prison at an early age.
Changing THIS system requires activism at the local school district level, a huge challenge, which advocates for children are beginning to take up.