By Mike Klein
Georgians appear ready to embrace juvenile justice reforms that would focus the state’s lock-ups on higher-level offenders and put new emphasis on less expensive and more effective community resources for lower-level offenders. And by Georgians, we mean folks out there in the real world, well beyond the State Capitol in Atlanta.
A newly released poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and the Mellman Group for the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project found proposed reforms in HB 242 enjoy widespread support among conservatives, liberals and independents. The bill would enact recommendations from the 2012 Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. HB 242 is scheduled for its first Senate hearing on Wednesday; it unanimously passed the House.
The Special Council found that the state’s secure residential facilities cost an average of about $90,000 per bed per year. Despite these huge expenditures, more than 50 percent of the adjudicated youth in the juvenile justice system are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release.
To address this poor return on investment, the Council produced a set of recommendations that have been included in HB 242 that would revise the juvenile designated felony act, reduce the number of lower-risk youthful offenders sent to secure facilities, emphasize community resources for lower-level juveniles and provide funding to help create or expand local programs.
In the survey, 92 percent of Georgians agreed that expensive facilities should be reserved for higher risk juveniles and alternatives that cost less should be available for lower-risk juveniles.
Governor Nathan Deal made juvenile justice reform a priority in his State of the State address. “Let’s capitalize on the success that we have already had in criminal justice reform,” Deal said with a nod to last year’s adult corrections reform legislation contained in HB 1176. Deal called for “community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders.”
“Georgians strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives to secure facilities,” stated the pollsters in the Pew-commissioned “Public Attitudes on the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia.” Six hundred registered voters participated in the survey.
When pollsters asked whether Georgia should “send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to a secure facility and use some of the savings to create a stronger probation system that holds juvenile offenders accountable for their crimes,” the answer was “Yes” from Democrats (91 percent), Republicans (86 percent) and Independents (83 percent).
Sixty-nine percent said strict probation supervision, counseling and remaining with families in their own homes were more likely than secure facilities to reduce the rate at which juveniles would commit new crimes. Again, that was the view of Democrats (76 percent), Independents (68 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).
When asked about specific proposals from the Special Council that are included in HB 242, 92 percent of Georgians agreed the juvenile designated felony act should be rewritten to differentiate between more serious felonies such as murder and less serious offenses such as “smash-and-grab” burglary. Support among voters who identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans or Independents ranged between 90-to-97 percent.
When asked about creating a fiscal incentive grant program to reward counties that send fewer lower-risk juvenile offenders to expensive state facilities by sharing some of the savings to reinvest in local programs – a proposal Governor Deal announced in his State of the State address – 85 percent of Georgians agreed. Again, support was consistently strong among Republicans (89 percent), Democrats (83 percent) and Independents (81 percent).
“Across the political spectrum, Georgians want a system that protects public safety, holds juvenile offenders accountable and contains corrections spending,” said Jason Newman, a public safety expert with The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Georgia voters strongly support proposals to reduce the size and cost of the juvenile corrections system and to reinvest savings into effective alternatives.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear HB 242 testimony at 4:00 p.m. Wednesday in room 307 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building at the State Capitol. Adult corrections system reforms that passed the House in HB 349 will be discussed in a Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee hearing that starts at 3:00 p.m., also at the same location.
When I served four terms in the state Senate, one of the few places where you could go to always and get concrete information about real solutions was the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. That hasn’t changed. [The Foundation] is really right up there at the top of the state think tanks, so you should be very proud of the work that they are doing!