For the second year in a row, Georgia lawmakers have come together to hold hands around a package of reforms for the state's justice system. If the research holds true, the changes promise to save Georgia wads of money, decrease the number of reoffending criminals, and move our collective psyche further away from a decades-long "tough on crime" approach that often erroneously equated longer prison sentences with crime reduction.
Yesterday, state senators followed in the steps of the Georgia House of Representatives, unanimously voting to approve House Bill 242, a piece of legislation that's considered the first large-scale revision to Georgia's juvenile justice system in more than four decades.
Once signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, the revisions would give judges more discretion in sentencing young criminals, provide more than $5 million to fund community-based programs for some low-level offenders, and cut juvenile incarceration costs by a projected $88 million over the next five years, among other things.
"By updating our outdated juvenile code, we can focus on the proper rehabilitative measures needed to move children out of the juvenile court system permanently," Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, said in a statement.
While the number of young offenders has decreased over the past decade, the likelihood that a kid incarcerated at one of the state's nearly two dozen detention facilities will re-offend within three years of release has largely flatlined, hovering right around the 50 percent mark.
Kids who spend time in jail are more likely to commit crimes again than peers who receive other forms of punishment, such as probation or community-based alternatives like anger management or counseling sessions, according to research by the Pew Center for the States. By sending more offenders to community programs, the state sees the opportunity to save money and improve outcomes for many kids in the legal system with the hopes they'll go on to live productive (law-abiding) lives as adults.
Thus far, HB 242 has enjoyed a fairy-tale journey on its path to becoming a law. Many of the recommendations included in the bill stem from a special council the governor reconvened in 2012 to look at ways of improving the Georgia's juvenile justice system. The work of the same council in 2011 led to reforms to the state's adult criminal justice system last year.
Deal has repeatedly said that these reforms are among his top priorities this legislative session, and he's expected to sign the bill into law. He called it a historic day when inking changes to the adult system last May.
The 248-page bill now heads back to the House for approval following a few tweaks made by the Senate, like rolling in House Bill 219, a piece of legislation that deals with the rights of minors found to be victims of sexual exploitation or trafficking, before heading to the governor's desk.
Georgia's juvenile justice system deals with about 40,000 kids and costs taxpayers more than $250 million each year. Child advocates have been pushing for similar reforms to a number of state policies for years.
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