Top Judge Speaks the Truth About Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System

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John Last 1Anyone who has spent much time around a prison realizes it is usually not a place of healing or rehabilitation. The truth is prisons are mostly warehouses these days, places where we send people just to have them out of the way. A lot of those people have diagnosed mental health problems, and a lot more have, or also have, substance abuse and addiction issues.

I can’t speak to all prison systems, but in Georgia the “treatments” that both of these groups have received in the past have been, well…, laughable. Short appointments with a psychiatrist and enough medication to keep them sedated was the course of action for guys with mental health issues, while guys with substance abuse problems attended “classes” where they heard a mishmash of moralistic judgments and pseudo-scientific theories.

It isn’t too hard to see that these measures were less than effective.

The state of juvenile facilities in Georgia isn’t much better. It isn’t so much that there aren’t people in place who care, the problem is, and has been, a fundamental lack of resources.

The state’s Department of Juvenile Justice can’t maintain its force of officers.  Neither, I am certain, is the DJJ maintaining a quality treatment program for addiction and mental health services. There simply isn’t enough money. Officials may say there will be no reduction in services, but that is, to put it kindly, inaccurate.

Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Carol Hunstein, pointed out this dilemma during her recent State of the Judiciary speech to the General Assembly.

Hunstein, who is part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, used her speech to express support for several proposals the Republican governor has put forward. These include special courts for drug offenders and for military veterans. The Council, she said, "began united in our belief that warehousing nonviolent offenders who are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill does nothing to improve the public safety. Indeed, in the long run, it threatens it."

She was speaking of reforms to the law and the Department of Corrections, but also drew parallels with the juvenile justice system. She pointed out that of the 10,000 juveniles in custody some two-thirds have substance abuse issues and one-third mental health problems. Many of these are non-violent offenders, often sentenced to youth prisons because of a lack of resources for treatment on the outside. Justice Huntstein encouraged lawmakers to address these issues. “We now know that being tough on crime is not enough,” she said.

As budgets continue to fall, not just in Georgia, but around the nation, governments are being forced to face facts. Rhetoric and popular appeals to the conservative base worked as long as there was money to pay for tough laws, but now it is time to pay for the outcome of such talk, and to hopefully put solutions in place that not only better serve non- violent, mentally- ill, and addictive- youth, but also serve society as a whole, not only fiscally, but also by reducing future criminal activity.

We will see these kids again. What state they are in when that happens is largely dependent on how they are treated now.

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