For more than 40 years, Georgians have been coping with a complicated and outdated patchwork quilt of laws governing juvenile justice. Now, with the reforms in place, we will be able to administer justice more effectively and improve the lives of the children and families caught up in the juvenile justice system.
None of this would have happened without the leadership of Deal, the hard work of many of my fellow legislators and the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, the support of Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and the hard work of numerous statewide organizations, state agencies and volunteers, including parents, prosecutors, family attorneys, judges, scholars and youths who shared their experience with the juvenile system. The unselfish efforts of many have paid off for the children and families of Georgia.
Here are some of the important changes ahead:
o Status offenders — children under 18 who become truants, runaways or unruly –– would be considered “children in need of services” and the focus of the court will be on addressing the problems that led to the behavior. This will save money by avoiding unnecessary detention and help fashion more appropriate responses to the offenses. This is the first important step in preventing juvenile offenses from become adult crime.
o Recidivism rates will be reduced. About 65 percent of Georgia’s teenagers currently jailed for an offense will commit another crime within three years. This percentage is unacceptable, and other states have modified their programs to substantially reduce youth returning to courts.
The focus of the juvenile reform measures is to improve community-based programs to keep nonviolent juvenile offenders in their schools and homes, where possible, saving the state substantial costs when a juvenile is placed in a secured detention facility. As a result, juveniles who need to be detained will be.
o Mediation tools will be strengthened. Although some juvenile courts in Georgia have mediation programs, they are not used routinely in delinquency cases. The new law will encourage this practice.
o Evaluation tools to determine if a juvenile may be a risk to be back in the community will be implemented by courts which will provide the judge greater information as to what programs or detention the child may be placed in, balancing the interest of public safety.
The immediate benefits of the reforms are many.
o Many parents and most children do not understand their rights in these cases. Under the new law, it will be clear as to when a child must be represented by an attorney. In addition, a major emphasis will be to provide counseling and services to the child and the family.
o Foster children will find permanency faster. By moving up the timeframes for key court review hearings, the new law will ensure all the players remain focused on returning the child home or, if that’s not possible, finding a safe, stable alternative as soon as possible.
o By conforming our laws to federal programs, Georgia can protect its share of federal dollars applied to juvenile justice.
o We will save precious tax dollars. The annual expense for one child at a secured detention facility is $91,000. By comparison, the cost to place a child in a non-secure residential facility will be $29,000, and community supervision of a child left at home is as little as $3,000 a year.
There is no doubt these and many other reforms contained in the new law will serve all Georgians. Our children will be treated more justly and effectively while community interests in crime prevention will continue to be served. I’m personally gratified to have played a role in this statewide effort, and want to thank all those who worked so hard on behalf of the best interests of Georgia’s children.
District 51 State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, also serves as chair of the House Judiciary Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.