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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Council works toward reforming state's juvenile justice system

Gov. Nathan Deal's Criminal Justice Reform Council met last week to kick off the final leg of an extensive system overview as they continue trying to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.

If all goes well, the panel of lawyers, lawmakers, and other officials will present their recommendations to state legislators by the end of the year, in time for the next legislative session under the Gold Dome.

But dissecting the data points, trends, outcomes, and challenges facing Georgia’s juvenile system is no easy task. In fact, it’s pretty monumental.

For the past two all-day working sessions, the council heard presentations from the Pew Center for the States, a non-profit focused on “policy solutions” Georgia partnered with to delve into the data, track outcomes, and provide other technical support.

“One of the challenges for any state, and particularly Georgia, is looking at what kind of outcomes they’re getting. Recidivism rates over the past decade or so have basically remained flat,” said Jason Newman, state manager for the think tank's research into Georgia’s juvenile justice system. “What that tells us is that Georgia is not getting better outcomes, and one of the questions is, Why? What can the state do to improve public safety and start reducing the recidivism rate so that more offenders lead productive lives and don’t come back into either the juvenile or adult system?”

Jason Newman, state manager with Pew Center for the States, addresses Georgias Criminal Justice Reform Council
  • Clay Duda
  • Jason Newman, state manager with Pew Center for the States, addresses Georgia's Criminal Justice Reform Council
Kids that find their way into the juvenile system today are slightly more likely to reoffend within three years than their counterparts a decade ago, according to Pew’s research. While the overall population of juvenile offenders has decreased since 2003, the likelihood young offenders will recidivate has increased about six percent — hovering around the 50 percent mark.

“No one can say with exact certainty what has increased the number of young recidivists in Georgia since 2003,” Jim Shuler, communications director with the Department of Juvenile Justice, said in a statement. “What is known is that youth who enter deeper levels of Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System often have higher risk levels and increased likelihood of recidivating.”

Some other key findings presented to the panel:

  • Georgia has seen an increase in designated felons, a special class of young offenders that carries higher mandatory sentences and other restrictions.
  • While there are more designated felons in the system, nearly 40 percent are classified as low-risk to reoffend.
  • Results from assessment tools used to calculate the risk level of young offenders aren’t always available to judges prior to adjudication (the term for “conviction” used in the juvenile system) or sentencing.
  • Assessment tools aren’t uniformly used across juvenile court systems in the state, and some have not been tested and verified as being effective.
  • Georgia’s juvenile justice system is hodge-podge, employing two types of court systems, complicating data collection and comparison across the state.
  • A large numbers of low-risk youth offenders continue to consume juvenile justice resources.

“In terms of where you’re going to focus your resources in order to be most effective in reducing recidivism, you want to focus most of your resources on high-risk offenders,” Newman said. “That’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck. If you’re spending a lot of money on low-risk offenders you’re not getting as good a return on investment.”

Resources mark another huge challenge for the state’s juvenile system. Since 2008 and the start of the recession, the juvenile justice department's budget has shrunk by nearly 30 percent. Yet, the cost to taxpayers supporting the system that handles about 40,000 young offenders each year still tops $250 million annually.

“When we talk about reducing the rate of reoffending we want to look at the things that are targeting the higher-risk offender for correctional intervention. That really is going to maximize our impact on recidivism reduction,” Kristy Danford, project manager for the Crime and Justice Institute, a non-profit partnered with Pew to help with the system analysis, said during the research presentation last week. “If we focus our resources on changing behavior we’re more likely to reduce the likelihood of re-offense, and increase the likelihood a youth can go on to be a productive citizen.”

There’s no guarantee lawmakers will act on the recommendations when the next round of politicking begins in January, but if the passage of last year’s HB 1176 — a criminal justice reform package stemming from same council’s review of the adult criminal justice system in 2011 — can serve as any sort of precursor, there’s a good chance 2013 will be a big year for mischievous tykes who run afoul of the law, or at least how the state handles them.

Couple the council’s work with the ongoing push for the first juvenile code rewrite in more than four decades — an initiative largely independent of the council — and the potential for reform is even higher, something child advocates and activists in the state have been pushing for years.

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