Blog: Georgia

Global Youth Justice Launches 250 Youth Justice Web Sites; News Roundup

Juvenile Justice Reform

Georgia: Mental Health is a Huge Issue in Justice Strategy

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center last week when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol. “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.
Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.
Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals. This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code. Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.
The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in the hearing.

The Unique Challenge of Georgia Juvenile Repeat Crime

The devil is always in the details and sometimes details are like trying to put lipstick on a pig. The recidivism rate for Georgia juveniles is a case in point.
One-in-two juveniles leave the system and do not return within three years. But one-in-two are back within three years, usually because of a new crime, violation of a court order or a probation offense. There is a cash cost for that level of failure and there also is a human cost.
When the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform convened this summer it heard primarily generalities about juvenile justice from expert analysts. When the Council met this week it was taken into the weeds, deeper into data, and some members had their eyes opened a bit wider.
“The question is what do we do from here and how do we improve the recidivism rate,” said Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal. “The recidivism rate is around 50 percent and that’s not acceptable.” State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver described the one-in-two recidivism rate as “very scary” and Douglas County District Attorney David McDade asked, “Are we spending our dollars in a way that protects public safety? That’s the whole driver for me.”

Georgia Special Council on Justice Turns Its Attention to the Kids

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.

Teens in Juvenile Justice System Creating Hope and Opportunity through The Beat Within's Writing and Art Program

For the better part of the last two decades, The Beat Within has been committed to a mission of providing incarcerated youth with a forum where they can write (and draw) about the things that matter most to them, explore how they have lost connection with those things they value, and consider how they might re-connect to positive situations in their lives through the power of the written word.
This is a program that started small, in the Bay Area, with a commitment to provide detained kids between the ages of 11 to 18 with a safe space to share their ideas and experiences while promoting literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.
That modest local effort has grown into a nationwide program that touches the lives of more than 5,000 youth in detention. Today, you can find weekly Beat workshops going on in 12 California county juvenile halls, from Alameda to San Diego. We are partnering with universities from U.C. Berkeley to the University of Hawaii. Meanwhile, the workshop model for The Beat is being replicated in Arizona, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and, thanks to the JJIE, Georgia.

School Discipline: When Should Law Enforcement Step In?

This week, several schools and districts are grappling with the issue of when—if ever—it is appropriate for police officers to get involved with school discipline issues.
The Albuquerque school district, for example, is currently the defendant in a class action lawsuit over referring students to law enforcement for allegedly minor offenses. When a student was talking to her friend and refused to return to her seat, her teacher called the police.
In contrast, a Georgia six-year-old throwing a violent tantrum—which included destruction of property and assault, according to published reports—was arrested and taken away in a police cruiser. She was also put in handcuffs while in the cruiser, according to standard department policy, but to the outrage of many.

Budget Crises, High-Needs Kids and Juvenile Justice Reforms

As California and the nation continue to struggle with budget crises, creative and cost-effective approaches in the provision of services for high-needs youthful offender populations are becoming increasingly necessary.
Leaders in California, Georgia and New York have recently called for reform or “realignment” of their out-of-date state-run juvenile justice systems. While the urgency for reform in many states is a result of strained state budgets, it serves as an opportunity to engage juvenile justice stakeholders to restructure their juvenile justice systems in a more efficient and effective manner.
One population to pay particular attention to when planning for juvenile justice realignment is the disproportionate number of youth with mental health needs in juvenile facilities, known as the “crossover caseload.”
These highest-needs youth have historically been neglected during times of reform, when in fact they are the youth most in need of quality, individualized care. As a result of 1980s mental health system reform, juvenile justice systems, in effect, replaced public psychiatric hospitals in the care of mentally ill youth; despite the fact that the juvenile justice system lacks the resources to provide adequate services for this population.
Although rates of juvenile incarceration have been declining, a disproportionate number of youth in this crossover caseload are still being confined, between 50-70 percent nationally and 42 percent in California, according to conservative estimates.

State’s Juvenile Justice System Needs Overhaul, Says Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court

At Wednesday’s annual State of the Judiciary Address, Georgia’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein urged lawmakers to overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system, asking legislators to support more rehabilitative services for youth as opposed to incarceration of juvenile offenders.
“The same reforms we are recommending to you for adults must begin with children,” Hunstein said. “If we simply throw low-risk offenders into prison, rather than holding them accountable for their wrongdoing while addressing the source of their criminal behavior, they merely become hardened criminals who are more likely to reoffend when they are released.”
Hunstein noted that state budget cutbacks have limited services for many mental health and child welfare programs, which she said puts juvenile judges in a position to send youth to detention facilities “or nothing at all.”
She cited Department of Juvenile Justice statistics showing that nearly two-thirds of the approximate 10,000 incarcerated youth in the state suffer from substance abuse issues, while approximately one-third had been diagnosed with mental health complications.

Cuts to juvenile justice system in Georgia won’t compromise safety, says Commissioner

Georgia’s juvenile justice system is eliminating jobs just as many other state agencies are, but Commissioner Gale Buckner of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) promised Wednesday that none of the cuts will compromise the safety of youthful offenders.
Directed by Gov. Nathan Deal to cut spending on current programs by 2 percent, the DJJ submitted a proposed 2013 budget that trims clerical and administrative positions, four teachers and two dozen staffers in a program offering intensive community-based programs supervision.
But, Buckner told state House and Senate budgetwriters Wednesday, “no position that is safety- or security-related will be cut.” Buckner was responding to the concerns of state Rep. Quincy Murphy of Augusta, where a 19-year-old was fatally beaten two months ago in his cell at a youth development campus. A 17-year-old resident of the facility was charged with murder in the incident.
Buckner cautioned, however, that low pay and other factors contribute to a continuing struggle to keep enough juvenile correctional officers on the job. Their entry salary is $24,000 a year, she noted, “so we have problems filling those positions but also keeping those positions [filled].”

Locking up kids who have committed no crime could cost Georgia millions in federal funds

Every week, Georgia locks up juveniles who’ve committed no crime. A new study contends Georgia risks losing millions of dollars in federal funding if it continues doing so at the current rate.
They are runaways, truants, curfew violators, underage smokers and drinkers. They’re called status offenders because their actions are only an issue due to their status as juveniles; if an adult did the same thing, it wouldn’t be a crime.
Now, a report commissioned by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families warns that the practice could cost the state about $2 million a year in federal funding, particularly if Congress follows through with plans to tighten guidelines for placing status offenders in secure detention.
The report, authored by Anthony Simones, a criminal justice professor at Dalton State College, and Sandra S. Stone, the school’s vice president of academic affairs.
In 1974, Congress prohibited states from holding status offenders behind bars other than for the few hours just before and after a court hearing. An exception, though, allows states to lock up juveniles who violate a valid court order.

Talking back to zero tolerance

In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk. For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues. It seems — at least here in southeast Georgia — as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house.
Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus. These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different.
Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”? That is a great question, as the Georgia Code fails to define either term for the purposes of explaining exactly what conduct the state Legislature sought to criminalize. However, I can tell you that “disrespectful language” and “refusing to follow the commands of teacher” can land a child an invitation to juvenile court.
A child who is found to be delinquent of “disrupting or interfering with the operation of public schools” in Georgia, is subject to the punishment of a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This likely means probation for a length of time with a litany of conditions for the child to comply with, but could also result in a 30-day stay in a Regional Youth Detention Center.
When I was in school, disruptive children were punished by being assigned extra homework, given detention, in- school suspension or out- of- school suspension. The severity of the punishment varied with the severity of the actions; for example, talking back to the teacher might result in after-school detention, while getting into a playground fight would likely result in suspension.