Special Council on Criminal Justice Turns its Attention to Kids

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

One challenge in almost every policy discussion is how to make the numbers mean something.  So, let’s hope these numbers mean something.  The annual cost to fully incarcerate someone in Georgia’s juvenile detention system is $98,000 per bed, more than five times greater than adult prison system per person costs.  On the other hand, the state share is about $4,300 per pupil in the K-12 public school system.  One is an investment in the future. The other is simply shocking.

“Where is that money going?  Where is that $98,000?”  That question – asked rhetorically – was among several posed this week when the newly reconstituted Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform held its first meeting to consider a vast rewrite of the state juvenile code.  The Council retained all 13 members whose work helped to craft ideas for this year’s adult criminal justice system reforms, and it added eight new members, several with juvenile code expertise.

The Council is also expected to consider some unfinished business from the 2012 adult system reforms; in particular, more work on earned compliance credits, mandatory minimum safety valve sentencing ideas, and possible decriminalization of some traffic offenses.  But make no mistake about it; the main course on this year’s menu will be juvenile justice reform.

“States across the country including Georgia are facing very high per child costs in the juvenile system,” Pew Center on the States public safety analyst Jason Newman told the Council.  Part of the reason for higher per person expense is the juvenile system has costs that are not found in the adult system.  For example, mandatory education and especially special education which is costly.

Newman also told the Council, “Most states are not getting very good outcomes.”  That includes Georgia; 45 percent of juveniles who serve time in secure facilities commit another crime within three years.  They return to the juvenile system, or after age 18 show up in the adult system.

This year the General Assembly nearly enacted a package of significant juvenile reforms.  A bill that unanimously passed the House (HB 641) was sidelined because of questions about state expense and how local communities would afford services they would be asked to provide.  The bill has existed in various forms for about five years, with lots of stakeholder contributions.

The Special Council faces a December 31 deadline to submit its recommendations to Governor Nathan Deal.  A new bill is expected in the 2013 Legislature.  The Council will again receive technical assistance from the Pew Center and this new venture is joined by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which has decades of juvenile code expertise.

There is a great deal more to this conversation than questions about incarceration or expansion of community-based alternatives, similar to the path being implemented in the adult system.  For example, the juvenile code as envisioned in HB 641 would address juveniles who are unruly, but their actions would not be crimes as adults.  Some Council members indicated they want to learn more about how to decide whether 17-year-old offenders should be treated as juveniles or adults.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice will spend $300 million this fiscal year.  That will pay for seven Youth Development Campus facilities where juveniles can be held as long as two years; this is the juvenile equivalent of the state adult prison system.  DJJ operates 20 Regional Youth Detention Centers where juveniles are held while awaiting adjudication for an offense.   The department is also responsible for some 14,000 youths in community-based settings.

When you look at all the services provided – and all the locations where service is provided – the state DJJ interacts with about 41,000 juvenile offenders per year and it maintains a daily headcount of almost 16,000 offenders in its secure detention or community-based programs.

As noted above, 45 percent of all committed youth will be charged with a new crime within three years and the number is 60 percent for those sentenced to confinement in a Youth Development Campus secure facility.  “That rate has increased slightly over the last eight to nine years,” Pew’s Newman told the Special Council.  “So despite significant costs the state is actually seeing recidivism rates that are on the rise.”

“With all due respect, those numbers are lower than I thought,” said Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who is newly appointed to the Council.  “It depends on what you are asking,” Newman said.  “If you’re talking about re-arrested those numbers are higher. These are just the ones that are re-adjudicated,” meaning, they are back inside DJJ facilities or programs.

Changes Underway in the Adult Corrections System

This week’s Special Council meeting was notable for something else – a rare and illustrative discussion of changes already underway in the adult criminal justice system.  Tracking system reforms is a complex challenge because implementation has no single executive team and it has no website that would help the public learn about what’s being done, when and where.

The Department of Corrections will open new residential substance abuse treatment centers this month in Turner, Appling and Pike counties.  The Appling and Pike facilities are so-called dual diagnosis centers that also specialize in mental health services.

“We know mental health is a growing population, a growing segment of our probation and prison population,” said Jay Sanders, special assistant in the Corrections probation operations division.  “Our goal is to keep offenders – those that we can, not everyone – out of prison and in the community.”  Each center can provide mental health and substance abuse service to about 200 offenders.

A new probation day reporting center opened last week in Savannah and another will open within six months but the location has not been announced.  “These hold 100-to-125 individuals,” Sanders said.  “They report in every day, see their officer.  They’re drug tested and go to counseling.”

Community impact program sites are now open in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, McDonough and Rome.  These local offices connect mental health, education and labor resources with released offenders who are re-entering the community.  Two or three more are anticipated.  “We want to give you the opportunity to succeed so we don’t see you again on probation, in prison or on parole,” Sanders told the Special Council.

The Special Council did not announce a timetable for next meetings.  It will divide into work groups.  State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Governor’s Office deputy executive counsel David Werner are co-chairs.  “Nothing is off the table,” Boggs told the panel.  “We want to make sure that we are inclusive.”

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