Recently, lawmakers in Georgia have decided a change is needed in their juvenile justice laws. After Georgia’s legislature passed a series of reforms in March 2012 that revised sentencing laws for non-violent drug and property offenders, lawmakers have turned their attention to fixing Georgia’s increasingly expensive juvenile system. Will these proposed changes represent a sincere shift in how states adjudicate young offenders, or, will they simply be a temporary stopgap in how Georgia handles the offenses of its youngest offenders and budgetary constraints?
Given, what Georgia lawmakers have considered an overwhelming success from their 2012 criminal justice system reforms––based on both statistics and budgetary freedom––the focus for the current session is how to minimize the financial impact of the juvenile system. Currently, Georgia has a $300 million budget for the juvenile justice department. A large percentage of Georgia’s budget––almost two-thirds––goes to youth residential facilities, where the average cost of a bed per year is over $91,000 for long-term facilities and over $88,000 per year for short term youth detention centers. By comparison, the incarceration of one single adult in a Georgia prison costs approximately $18,000. Clearly, with such high prices, a recidivism rate of nearly sixty-five percent of youthful offenders incarcerated in residential facilities is nothing less than a systematic failure.
Following the release of the Criminal Justice Reform Council Report on Juvenile Justice, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court called for an overhaul of the juvenile justice system. Chief Justice Carole Hunstein stated that legislators need to divert non-violent juvenile offenders away from residential facilities and create a system in which such offenders become more involved in community programs while taking a look at solutions to other common problems within the juvenile system––substance abuse, domestic relations, and gang involvement. As the Reform Council Report notes, their recommended changes would save Georgia taxpayers more than $88 million over the next five years. Two questions remain: (1) what reforms are the legislator proposing, and (2) will it be effective in both serving the needs of offender rehabilitation while minimizing systematic cost?
In their report, the Reform Council proffered a series of fifteen recommendations, which were broken into two categories––(1) those that focused on limiting the use of residential and short term detention facilities to high-risk serious offenders, and (2) those that focused on reducing recidivism by strengthening community supervision programs. The first category focused on the actual reformation of how the system designates youthful offenders and assesses potential penalties, whereas the second category focused on the need to “cut the fat” from increasingly unsuccessful community supervision programs that have failed to keep offenders from re-entering the justice system.
Chief among the first category’s recommendations is the creation of a two-class system within the Designated Felony Act. Currently under Georgia law, there is a single all-encompassing felony provision that ranges from burglary to murder. For the Reform Council, a two-class system that distinguishes the offenders by both severity of offense and risk-level would allow for a better use of state funded resources. Similarly, the Reform Council recommended the prohibition of low-risk status offenders and misdemeanors offenders from commitment to residential or detention facilities. The report noted that in 2011, fifty-three percent of juveniles in non-secure residential facilities were adjudicated for either misdemeanors or status offenses. Following the path of states like Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Alabama, the Reform Council recommended that that status offenders be barred entirely from being sentenced to residential or detention centers; such facilities should be reserved for those juveniles who (1) are adjudicated delinquent for a felony offense; or (2) whose current offense is a misdemeanor but has at least four prior adjudications of delinquency including at least one prior felony adjudication. Such recommendations, if adopted, should help to curb the inflow of non-violent offenders in an increasingly expensive and inefficient system. However, what, if any, repercussion can the state offer to those barred from out-of-home facilities (residential or detention placements)?
The second part of the Reform Council’s report addressed the limited sentencing options that juvenile judges have in lieu of out-of-home placement. However, despite a series of recommendations regarding increased reporting and auditing requirements and the implementation of new juvenile assessment tools––scales that assess the risk and placement of a juvenile––the Reform Council offered few concrete steps for legislators and community officials to follow in reforming alternative programs. Regardless, these recommendations were drafted into House Bill 242 (“The Juvenile Justice Reform Bill”), which was introduced to the Georgia General Assembly on February 8, 2013.
It is evident from the high cost of out-of-home placement and the increasing recidivism rates that the current system juvenile justice system in Georgia is broken. While the steps recommended by the report are a clear start to reassessing the needs of both the individual offenders and the system as a whole, there are still huge concerns with how to reduce recidivism rates. Keeping low-risk offenders out of residential facilities is certainly a step in the right direction; however, more guidance, reform, and oversight is needed in alternative community based programs.
Senior Blog Editor, Criminal Law Brief
Image by: Ken Lund
 Note: The overall recidivism rate of Georgia youth offenders is fifty-three percent.