Is Juvenile Justice the Missing Link in Corrections Reform?

Mike Klein, Georgia Public Policy Editor

Golfers love being on the leader board.  Corrections officials, not so much as there is nothing to celebrate about Georgia being the national leader with the highest percentage of its adults under corrections system supervision.  The ratio is 1-in-13 and it is the worst in the country.

Not only does it cost lots of money – more than $1 billion per year in state dollars to run prisons – but lofty incarceration, probation and parole statistics send the wrong message nationally and internationally when Georgia tries to market itself as a leading edge economy and destination.

Over the next several months you will hear extensive discussion about adult corrections system reform.  A commission created by the 2011 General Assembly was told to develop proposals to streamline Georgia corrections without an adverse impact on public safety.  The report is due to Governor Nathan Deal in seven weeks, with legislation possible next year.

Not much of the process is being conducted in public – there have been just three public meetings – and the process does not include a juvenile justice system review.  That is an unfortunate and perhaps costly oversight.  Doesn’t it make sense that a high percentage of adults who commit felonies and fill our prisons began their criminal careers as troubled youths?

Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright

“It seems to me that if we were to concentrate a lot of our efforts more in the juvenile justice arena then we might have greater success later in terms of reducing the crime rate,” said Judge Cynthia Wright, chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court.   Wright appeared on a public safety panel hosted by Women in Leadership this week at The Commerce Club.

“I know that our (Fulton County) juvenile court judges have said that we don’t really have a lot of options where to send violent kids,” Wright said.  “The amount of time that they can spend in any sort of detention facility has been reduced down to almost nothing.  These kids go through the juvenile court and they are right back out on the street again.”

Crime is a repeat and often a family business.  ”I keep seeing the same people I sent off before (and) generationally, see their family members,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs who serves on the Waycross Judicial Circuit in southeast Georgia.  Boggs is also a corrections reform commission member, and he appeared alongside Wright on the Commerce Club panel.

Georgia adult corrections system numbers are ugly:  56,000 at least in prison and 160,000 on parole or probation.  Georgia has the ninth largest state population but overall, the fourth largest corrections system.  Totals do not include adults locked up in county or municipal jails.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice serves 60,000 juveniles per year.  Three-fourths are male.  On any given day 2,000 youths are detained in secure facilities and 20,000 are assigned to less restrictive community based settings.  State juvenile justice system funding is going backward; down from just under $322 million in Fiscal 2008 to about $286 million in Fiscal 2012.

Recidivism – the percentage rate at which a former inmate is back behind bars – is nearly identical in the state’s adult corrections and juvenile systems.   This year The Pew Center for the States reported 34.8% of Georgia adults released starting in 2004 were back behind bars within three years.  Comparable statewide juvenile data was 40% within twelve months during the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, the latest numbers available.

Why this happens and how to enact reform that does not impact public safety is why we have a commission.   One impetus is clearly financial – adult corrections costs are the fastest growing line item after Medicaid state dollars.  More important, Georgia cannot become the state that it aspires to be so long as crime and corrections dominate at least some of the media message.

The final thoughts here are from Waycross Superior Court Judge Boggs:  “I sit around with some very conservative folks having a cup of coffee and they’ll say, lock ‘em up.  But do you know that it will cost $80 million to build one 1,500-bed prison in this state?  That’s not including the cost of the land and it will cost $25 million a year to operate that prison.

“We’re going to give the Legislature a lot to choose from and then they’re going to decide what is politically palatable and what they turn into legislation,” Boggs said.  “It’s not one size fits all and it’s certainly not a magic pill.  This is going to be a lengthy process.  It will not be fixed by whatever bill comes out of the recommendation that comes out of this committee.”

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