Governor’s Budget Concerns Sunk Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite but Cost of Not Passing it Could be Higher

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Volumes of the Georgia CodeBudget concerns stalled juvenile justice reform in Georgia this week, as the Georgia Senate declined to take it up in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session. But what about the costs of not passing juvenile justice reform?

The proposed 246-page Child Protection and Public Safety Act would have strengthened programs for foster children, established community-based help rather than incarceration for many troubled juveniles and bolstered their legal representation, among many other improvements.

Those reforms, which advocates say would save taxpayers money, may now be pushed back at least another year due to questions about the expense associated with other aspects of the bill.

The act, for instance, would require that the state help children become independent once they age out of the foster-care system on their 18th birthdays. Those young adults would get housing subsidies, tutoring, job skills training and other support until age 21 and emergency assistance until age 23.

Those kids once were completely on their own when they turned 18, and some drifted into homelessness and petty crime. Now they are eligible for some of those services, but the state is not required to offer them to every child.

"It means kids who are the most difficult and most challenging and need the services the worst probably won’t get them," said Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and a key advocate for the bill.

Pat Willis, executive director of the non-profit Voices for Georgia's Children, noted those programs would have helped kids who are currently leaving foster care, not hypothetical cases.

"This isn’t some unknown kid who might need services," Willis said. "This is a child whose name we know."

The bill drew unanimous support from the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its sponsor decided Monday not to seek a Senate floor vote after learning of Gov. Nathan Deal's fiscal concerns.

“The governor knows we need significant reform in our juvenile justice system, and he credits the legislators involved for their excellent work on this bill," Deal's director of communications, Brian Robinson, said Tuesday in a written statement. "He agrees with the direction of the legislation, but right now there are too many unknowns about the costs involved. Estimates vary widely, but we do know that it comes with a hefty price tag. The governor would like to see that issue resolved, so that we can move forward on these needed improvements.”

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill to July 2013, hoping to win enough support for passage while allowing for a thorough analysis of its fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill at all without having a good look at the price tag.

Retired Conasauga Circuit district attorney Kermit McManus, now a lobbyist for the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Council, warned Tuesday that the state had failed to deliver on earlier funding promises.

When state officials reduced short-term juvenile detentions from 90 days to no more than 30, it committed to pay for locally-based alternative treatment programs across the state. But, McManus said, funding wasn't there to follow through on that promise.

"That part is a scary part to prosecutors," McManus said.

Relying more on treatment and less on detention for delinquents "probably would be a better system," he said.  "We haven’t seen it and we are skeptical."

District attorneys called particular attention to the bill's requirement that a prosecutor handle every delinquency case in juvenile court. They said DAs would need $15.9 million a year to pay for the personnel and operating costs, nearly twice what a study commissioned by juvenile advocates had estimated.

Supporters of the bill said many costs projected by prosecutors and others really covered the cost of complying with the current juvenile code. Advocacy groups didn't have the money to rebut detractors' claims or to calculate the financial benefits of the bill more precisely, said Willis of Voices for Georgia's Children.

"We had some money to look at costs but we never had the kind of resources that would have taken the deep dive," she said. "As non-profits, we just have not had the resources to do that major analysis … [of] not only what does it cost, but what does it save."

Willis said the coalition pushing reform, while disappointed, made progress this year in forging agreement on Georgia's future policy for abused and delinquent children.

"We take some energy from the fact that we did build consensus among all of the stakeholders that this is the right law," she said. "We do have a lot of confidence that the leadership is ready to work with us. We’re certainly ready to work with the leadership."

Photo by Emory Law

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