Georgia’s juvenile justice system has undergone numerous sweeping changes to begin the new year. With a new law (HB 242) taking effect earlier this month, a just released Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (GCCJR) report makes several recommendations to alter the state’s freshly rewritten code, ranging from simple terminology amendments to deeper state and federal agency interaction.
The law, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal last year, seeks to lower the number of beds in the state’s juvenile justice facilities, primarily via community-based alternatives to detention. The state has already handed out $6 million as part of an incentive grant program, with evidence-based programs, like Functional Family Therapy and Multi-Systemic Therapy, sprouting up in regions serving almost three quarters of Georgia’s entire at-risk youth population. Additionally, the code rewrite bars the confinement and detention of juveniles for status offenses, and creates the classification “Children in Need of Services” (CHINS) as a substitution for the previous “unruly” child designations.
The commission estimated that prior to the enactment of HB 242 the state was spending an average of $90,000 annually per secured residential juvenile facility bed. Approximately a quarter of young people in out-of-home placement had been adjudicated for low-level offenses, and about four out of 10 residents were assessed as “low-risk” to reoffend.
“Despite costs of more than $300 million annually, more than half of the youth in the juvenile system were re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release, a rate that had held steady since 2003,” the report states. “The Council’s initiatives are expected to save an estimated $85 million through 2018 and avoid the need to open two additional juvenile residential facilities.”
Additional savings, the report said, could be realized by simply using different language. GCCJR encouraged the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) to alter its delinquency court order language as a means of procuring more federal funding. Under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, federal matching funds are provided for states that use child-specific “best interest” language in court orders, alongside certified “reasonable efforts” to avoid child removal from his or her home in fewer than 60 days. By changing the court order terminology, the GCCJR said, the state could have been eligible for funds that would have allotted more than $4 million to Georgia’s DJJ over the last two fiscal years.
“DJJ estimates an increase of $2 million a year in additional federal reimbursement based on last year’s data of Title IV-E eligible DJJ youth without the required Title IV-E language in their court orders,” the report states. “If the ‘contrary to the welfare’ and ‘reasonable efforts’ language were included in delinquency court orders for Department of Juvenile Justice youth, DJJ would have claimed an additional $4.2 million for FY 2012 and FY 2013 — an average of 44 youth per quarter.”
By July, the GCCJR recommends Georgia establish a process for transmitting Title IV-E data on DJJ youths to federal oversight agencies. This can be accomplished either via vendor outsourcing or use of existing DJJ and Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) staff, according to the report.
The GCCJR report suggests the state maintain its current definition of juvenile recidivism — any offense that results in adjudication within three years of a placement release — but recommends Georgia use Pre-Dispositional Risk Assessment (PDRA) calculations to measure risk-adjusted recidivism rates, which would then be applied retroactively to create a “trend line.” However, the GCCJR pinpoints independent counties as a potential barrier. Because they do not receive funding from state grants, they are not required to submit information to the state’s juvenile justice information systems.
The Council also recommends that Georgia create legislation that would allow the state to participate in the Interstate Compact on Juveniles. As JJIE first reported in 2011, Georgia was the only state that did not join in the agreement, which provides a framework allowing the seamless transition of juveniles from one state to another.
“At this time, Georgia is no longer being notified of incoming youth from Compact member states, presenting potential public safety risks as well as increasing costs to Georgia’s juvenile justice system in the form of new commitments,” the report states. “Additionally, Georgia, while being financially responsible for the safe return of its own runaway youth, is finding it increasingly difficult to force Compact member states to bear the financial burden for the safe return of their youth.”