Published Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Changes in the juvenile laws are almost certain as two groups work from opposite directions converge to reach similar recommendations.
From opposite ends of the political spectrum, the groups seek to revamp a hodgepodge of laws that have landed in the juvenile section of the code books over the last 40 years. Almost no one argues revision is unneeded.
Until lately, though, there wasn’t much agreement on the solution.
The momentum belongs to the newest group to enter the picture, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, legislative leaders and Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. It was important enough that Hunstein appointed herself, although she doesn’t join the public discussions, maintaining a patina of judicial objectivity in case the issues should come before the top court.
Deal was once a juvenile-court judge, named his son to the panel. Last year, with a slightly different membership, the commission proposed wide-ranging changes to how adults are sentenced. The legislature passed those recommendations unanimously.
As part of its encore, the council rehired the Pew Center on the States to provide research and recommendations again.
Central to last year’s effort were estimates that the changes would save taxpayers $264 million over the next five years. The reason for such optimism is the lightened sentences for substance abuse and small-time check forgery and burglary that will reduce the number behind bars for those offenses.
“We spend $1.2 billion a year on our prison system, and those costs were set to soar far beyond what we can afford,” Deal said when he signed the adult reforms. “That makes no sense for taxpayers when there are more cost-effective means that have better outcomes.”
He is hoping to pull the same rabbit out of the hat with this year’s council report.
Since Georgia spends $98,000 per year on each high-risk juvenile it keeps locked up, about twice the cost of the average adult inmate, there’s room for savings.
The other group that’s working to change the law is a coalition called JUSTGeorgia. Since 2006, the coalition of child-advocacy groups, professors and lawyers has been focused on a rewrite of the law to make it more humane in the treatment of children but arguing savings would be a side benefit.
“It’s true, we didn’t start out saying, ‘How can we change this code to save money?’” said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children an Atlanta-base advocacy group that’s part of the coalition.
However, she predicts taxpayers could save money by shifting reliance on detention to counseling unruly youth while they’re living at home.
Money not spent guarding these mostly teen-age boys could be better spent teaching them how to cope with rough neighborhoods and dysfunctional families so they don’t become professional criminals. Poor judgment and inappropriate behavior by children isn’t a reason to give them what is essentially a life sentence of crime and punishment, she argues.
Since the juveniles in the high-risk category have a 60 percent chance of returning to detention three years after their release, each one who reforms saves taxpayers.
Both groups use the same national research which shows tough sentencing isn’t as effective as home-bound counseling.
But JUSTGeorgia has repeatedly hit dead ends in the legislature because it also insists that juveniles have more representation when they’re in court. All those extra lawyers cost money, and juvenile judges say they get in the way any how when the judge and caseworkers are already looking out for the kids.
The group also faced a firestorm in its initial draft because it wanted to raise the ages of who is considered a juvenile from 17 to 18, eliminate statutory rape between teens and curtail the practice of trying and sentencing juveniles as adults when they’re charged with serious violent crimes.
As the coalition has backed away from each of its most controversial provisions, it finally won unanimous approval in the House during the last session. Then the measure passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee before failing to reach the full Senate.
That bill also revised other aspects of juvenile law, including custody and neglect that are not on the Pew Center’s agenda.
“That’s sort of the difference between the lens that we were looking through and the lens that Pew is looking at,” Willis said. “We were looking at the lens of who is in the court (for any reason), who is coming in, how can we address their needs.”
While JUSTGeorgia took two years to research and draft its version of the revised law and the next four lobbying for it, the council has a short lifespan and must produce by Dec. 31. At least the coalition blazed a trail that could ensure passage, even if it started from a different perspective from the council.
“We feel like we’re heading in the same direction,” Willis said Friday.
(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)