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Special Council Proposes Two Tiers for Juvenile Felonies

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Georgia would establish a two-tiered system for felonies committed by juveniles younger than 18 years old if the 2013 General Assembly adopts recommendations unanimously approved Thursday morning by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform   As currently written, it builds on principles similar to adult criminal justice system reforms enacted this year.

The Special Council final report will be released on Governor Nathan Deal’s website next week.  It also contains a small number of adult system proposals.  Notably, the Council repeated its 2011 recommendation that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory sentence minimums in some drug trafficking cases and under specific circumstances.  Drug convictions are largely responsible for the explosive growth in state prison populations not just in Georgia but across the country.  The state Legislature did not adopt this recommendation last spring.

When it voted Thursday the 21-member Special Council recommended that felonies committed by juveniles not be treated equally. A draft report reviewed earlier by the Foundation said current state law “contains a single dispositional structure for nearly 30 offenses ranging from murder to smash-and-grab burglary.”  Having more than one category would ensure incarceration for convicted serious offenders and it would provide flexibility to address non-violent and low-risk offenders.

This is similar to the 2012 adult corrections system reforms that created more than one tier for crimes such as burglary.  For instance the recommendation that became state law July 1 now differentiates between the burglary of an occupied residence and the burglary of a shed or any unoccupied structure.  The adult code includes similar distinctions for other kinds of crimes.

The newly enacted adult code and the anticipated juvenile code rewrite share several common goals: Foremost, ensure public safety; second, incarcerate serious offenders as required; third, provide treatment and counseling in appropriate settings to non-violent offenders who are considered low-risk to offend; and, fourth, reduce and control unnecessary system expense.

Reducing recidivism has been and continues to be a central focus in these discussions. The Council has reviewed data that shows 65 percent of juveniles released from state confinement return to the juvenile system or enter the adult corrections system within three years of their initial release.  How to vastly reduce that recidivism percentage rate remains a high priority.

The Council’s final report will recommend that eight crimes committed by juveniles would become Class “A” felonies subject to the highest levels of prosecution and penalties upon conviction.  Those eight include murder, attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, sodomy, sexual battery, child molestation and aggravated battery.  There would be no Class “B” lesser option.

Aggravated assault is one example in which the Special Council will recommend that the state adopt two tiers of prosecution.  For example, assault with a firearm against any student, teacher or other school system employee would become a Class “A” felony.  Assault on school grounds that did not include use of a firearm would become a lesser Class “B” felony.

Similarly there would be a sharper distinction between the more serious Class “A” hijacking of an occupied vehicle and the less serious Class “B” theft of an unoccupied vehicle.  Drug offenses committed by juveniles would draw a distinction between the most serious charges — sale, manufacturing or delivering drugs – and less serious personal possession charges.  Street gang activity could become either Class “A” or “B” based on contributing circumstances.

The Council final report is expected to propose that conviction on a Class “A” felony would trigger up to five years of state confinement followed by one year of intense supervision.  Class “B” convictions would trigger 18 months maximum confinement, up to 18 additional months in a Department of Juvenile Justice program, and then six months of mandatory supervision.

About one dozen recommendations would affect how prosecutors, judges, treatment providers and others do their work with an emphasis on improved models to evaluate juveniles, manage their cases, make certain courts have all relevant information and help offenders return to the community upon release.  Similar to this year’s adult reforms there is language about reinvesting cost-based savings back into local community programs.

The council did not address dozens of juvenile code laws that are considered outdated including adoption, guardianship, terminating parental rights and children in need of services.  All 246 pages of House Bill 641 – a juvenile code rewrite — passed unanimously last spring but the Senate did not vote amid questions about cost.  It is possible but that the Special Council’s recommendations could be included in a new version of House Bill 641.  Separate pieces of legislation is another possibility.

The Legislature is not bound by law to accept any idea and it can create a bill that goes beyond the ideas that originate with the Special Council.  The Council has received technical support from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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