Georgia Council Calls for New System for Young Offenders

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At a meeting in Forsyth, Georgia, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform hammers out the last details of its juvenile justice reform recommendations.

A blue-ribbon panel in Georgia says the state should keep most misdemeanor offenders out of juvenile hall, and provide cash incentives for communities to channel kids away from custody and into programs that will divert them from further crime.

That’s the unanimous vote of the Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, after months of study and research assistance from the Pew Center on the States.

“We have rethought what works to help that juvenile” who comes in contact with the criminal justice system, said state Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, chair of the Council.

“We want to try to incentivize communities to build evidence-based options in their communities. That works better at reducing recidivism than commitment to a secure facility,” Boggs said.

The Council wants to cut the number of juveniles who go to state secure custody for misdemeanors. They are recommending that punishment be reserved for juveniles who already have four prior adjudications, including one felony.

A final version of the recommendations will be published next week, once edits made during the Dec. 13 Council meeting are added, Boggs said.

Ohio pioneered such changes in the early 1990s. There, counties take charge of less-risky youthful offenders and put send them to programs like community service, restorative justice work or mental health treatment.

Georgia has many more counties, and there’s concern that the math would not work in rural areas.

“Use judicial administrative districts,” suggested Council member and state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “We’ve got 49 of them as opposed to 159 counties. We have a little better control that way.”

It will be up to the state Legislature and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s office to draw up such funding details. Deal himself called the Council and charged it with making recommendations to him.

“We are tirelessly working on identifying some appropriations availability and developing a program that will be a targeted, voluntary grant program,” said W. Thomas Worthy, deputy executive counsel in the governor’s office and Deal’s delegate to the Dec. 13 Council meeting.

“Details will be forthcoming from our end,” he added.

In Georgia, the governor’s office takes the lead on budgeting, publishing a first draft of every fiscal year’s spending in January.

Money will be hard to come by, even against a state budget that will likely amount to $18 to $19 billion. Deal has already asked most state agencies to cut their budgets by at least three percent in the remaining months of this fiscal year, as well as the next year, which begins in July, 2013.

In Ohio, the model has saved money so far. The state has closed several juvenile lockups in the past dozen years.

But besides the Council’s recommendations and Deal’s budget proposal, the state Legislature will also consider a separate massive reorganization of another facet of juvenile justice that also comes with a new price tag.

A juvenile justice code rewrite has been underway for several years, led by Willard, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

The last incarnation of the bill, published in Spring 2012, ran to nearly 250 pages. Among other things, it would have made numerous updates to rules on evidence, court-appointed defenders and other processes in juvenile courts. It would have also updated protections for neglected and abused children involved in the courts as victims.

It foundered on questions around where to find money for proper treatment of children.

Willard said there is some overlap between his initiative and the Council’s recommendations, and they could possibly be united in a single bill.

The state Legislative session begins in January.

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