Charlie Harper: Reforming juvenile justice

December 29, 2012 

During the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly, laws were changed to relax sentences on some crimes to help deal with Georgia's growing prison population and save the related expenses of incarcerating so many of our fellow citizens. Key to the debate was not only the direct costs to the state, but the indirect costs of lost future income of those with felonies on their "permanent record," leaving them with fewer if any stable job opportunities -- and opportunities to pay taxes -- after their prison sentence ended.

Next year, Georgia will attempt to reform the way it handles many juvenile cases.

A report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Rhonda Cook notes that recommendations brought forward by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform will save taxpayers an estimated $88 million over a five-year period. The cost would come directly from the savings of not incarcerating an estimated 640 youths at a cost to taxpayers of about $90,000 per person per year.

Prisons tend to serve three purposes at any given time, and the weight of the importance for each purpose tends to vary based on the inmate who is incarcerated. Prison sentences serve as a punishment to those who have committed crimes. They also serve to protect the innocent population by removing criminals from civilian life. They also serve to rehabilitate those in the prison population so that when they have served their time, they can again be contributing and productive members of society.

For most who enter the juvenile justice system, rehabilitation is and should be the primary purpose. Youthful offenders who are not being tried as adults are those who will either learn a better path or eventually become a recurring part of the adult prison population. What is done with juvenile offenders after sentencing will have a large effect on how this plays out for the rest of their lives -- determining if they will be contributing members of society or a cost to the state.

Georgia is moving its focus away from the "tough on crime" approaches that worked so well, at least politically, for the past few decades. The reality of the expense of this approach has left the state with little choice in that. The new focus will involve more juveniles diverted to community-based groups instead of tough punishment in a prison setting.

Sentences in youth detention centers, which currently involve a 65% recidivism rate according to Cook's report, will be limited to violent offenses and those with multiple repeat offenses. Others who commit misdemeanors such as drinking under age or truancy -- crimes that are crimes only because of the juvenile's age -- will be diverted away from the detention centers and to community-based groups and programs unless it is their fourth offense. Currently, 25% of the population in state youth detention centers is made up of juveniles who have committed misdemeanor crimes.

The change in approach appears to be a reasonable and sound change in direction of policy and attitude toward juvenile offenders. It seems clear that many who currently spend time in youth detention centers are not receiving the proper motivation and/or environment to focus on rehabilitation. Keeping those who commit lesser infractions out of this system will enable them to be placed closer to positive role models and on paths toward future success, rather than joining a new network of current and future hardened criminals.

It is nice to see the state make an attempt to differentiate between the types of people in the juvenile prison population and work to save those who can and should be put on a positive path for their future. It is a bit troubling, however, that the main reason the state will be making this move is because it will save money. That's a nice side effect, but at some point the state must look at the cost of its adult prison population and the current recidivism rate of its juvenile population, and make the strong correlation to costs.

We cannot accept status quo of recidivism after this policy change and judge it a success merely on cost savings. At-risk youth present an area worthy of state investment. Georgians need to make sure we get this one right, even if ultimately there is no immediate cost savings. After all, we can either pay now or we can pay later when these kids become adults and part of a more expensive criminal justice problem.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government;

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