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Juvenile Justice Reforms Spotlighted in 2014

January 24, 2014
A young man in handcuffs

With the passage of the comprehensive Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2013, the state’s juvenile justice system has received a much-needed overhaul this year to help improve the futures of young offenders, while generating significant savings for Georgia taxpayers.

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery D. Niles observes that under the new law known as HB 242, only the most serious and violent young offenders should now be kept in custody. Other youth with misdemeanors and more minor offenses should be diverted into specialized community-based programs aimed at managing their core problems that range from dysfunctional families, anger issues and underdeveloped basic life skills, to drug and alcohol abuse.

These major changes to the juvenile justice code are expected to reduce both incarceration costs and the probability of reoffending.  Niles reports that it costs the state upwards of $90,000-a-year to house just one juvenile offender in a DJJ secure facility. Juvenile justice stakeholders compare that to the more cost effective $29,000-a-year price tag estimated for a youth to attend a non-secure residential placement or the $3,000 a year it costs for community supervision of a child left at home.

To enhance existing and newly created community-based programs, Georgia committed $5-million in state funds, plus another $1-million in federal grant money, to fund more of these community-based programs for our young offenders.  This innovative approach, called Juvenile Reinvestment, has already banked needed program dollars into more than 44 Georgia counties, with more counties expecting financial support in 2014.

Tools

This year the new reform law will also allow the state to work smarter when it comes to judicial sentencing and classifying youth offenses.   A newly developed set of standardized assessment tools will help judges determine the risk levels of juvenile offenders and decide their best sentencing options in court.

These tools will also help the courts place youth in the least restrictive environment needed to ensure public safety. One new assessment tool provides guidance for whether a young offender should be detained pending a court hearing. Another new assessment tool will help public defenders, prosecutors and juvenile justice authorities understand contributing negative factors that may cause youth to reoffend and will assist in developing a plan to reduce overall recidivism.  

Status Offenses

HB242 also stops Georgia youth from being automatically locked up for “status offense” violations. Offenses like running away, school truancy or curfew violations are called status offenses because they are based solely on the underage status of the juvenile. 

Under the Georgia Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2013, youth formerly referred to as “unruly children” who commit these types of offenses are now categorized as Children in Need of Services.  The law allows law enforcement, the Department of Juvenile Justice, and the Division of Family and Children Services to develop treatment and service plans for these juvenile offenders, rather than immediately sending them to DJJ detention centers.

Changes

These changes in Georgia juvenile law are based on years of dedicated research encouraged by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and developed by his reform panels. The use of best practices has shown when states take appropriate steps before, or sometimes instead of incarceration, the outcomes are better for our youth and our communities. 

By mid-2014, the introduction of Georgia’s new juvenile justice reforms and decision-making tools throughout the state are expected to produce a number of positive changes to the juvenile detention system.

Stakeholders here hope to see 2014 data that indicates decreasing trends in several key juvenile justice factors: 

  • A reduction in the number of low-risk offenders housed in DJJ’s secure facilities
  • A decrease in the out-of-home juvenile offender population committed to DJJ, as more low-risk offenders are diverted to rehabilitative and specialized evidenced-based treatment programs in our communities
  • And a decline in Georgia’s juvenile recidivism numbers as young offenders are assessed using the new tools which accurately measure criminogenic risks and needs for each youth

Niles says that taken together, the reforms in Georgia’s Juvenile Justice Act constitute a “win-win-win” equation for Georgia.  “It’s a win to get help for our youth who are neglected or abused – It’s a win for our troubled teens who need community outreach, not detention," he says. "And it’s a win for Georgia taxpayers who are entitled to protection from violent youth offenders, but who shouldn’t have to shoulder high security system costs for low-risk juvenile offenses.”

To read more on the Juvenile Justice Reform law, visit the Department of Juvenile Justice.

About the Author

GeorgiaGov Writer Noralil Ryan ForesJim Shuler is Communications Director for the Department of Juvenile Justice.  He is a former Emmy Award winning Atlanta investigative reporter who has devoted his media crisis skills in support of State of Georgia law enforcement agencies for the past thirteen years.