Josh McKoon: Youth, crime and justice

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerApril 12, 2013 

I believe when you can improve a government function and save money at the same time, that's a step worth taking, especially if that step can reduce crime with the added bonus of putting young people on a more productive path. In a few short weeks, Gov. Nathan Deal will sign into law a historic reform over Georgia's current juvenile justice system.

What will this bill change? For one thing, instead of locking up every suspect in detention centers, the program will offer sensible alternatives to those whose crime is less serious and who can be guided into a more productive life with the right kind of intervention that addresses the root of bad behavior. Most importantly, it updates the 40-year-old juvenile justice system, which doesn't protect the public very well from juvenile crime. In fact, by indiscriminately locking away most of those charged, it made crime worse.

This is no soft-on-crime remedy. This reform recognizes that some kids belong in jail, and others do not. What's more, it will pay for itself. We spend about $90,000 a year to put a single child in a detention center. It makes sense to reduce that cost while finding more effective approaches. After all, for many first-timers, these detention centers have become crime schools. About 65 percent of juveniles released from Department of Juvenile Justice detention go on to commit more crimes.

The reform supports programs that focus on why kids join gangs, commit robberies or start taking drugs. These programs will study families and determine if a child had a chance to go down another path in life. There may be a model in Clayton County to turn these statistics around. It's called "Second Chance," a system already in place that the statewide juvenile code reforms can strengthen. Of the 41 teenagers who have completed that program, only 29 percent commit more crimes or break the program's rules. That is a remarkable improvement over 65 percent, and it was done for about $74,000, which is $16,000 less than it takes to detain one juvenile for one year.

Two areas of juvenile justice will get a thorough upgrading. One area addresses "status offenders," kids who skip school, run away from home or violate curfew -- crimes that are only crimes because they are committed by juveniles. The new law would limit the circumstances under which kids would be detained and expand the services to help them straighten out before they grow up into a life of crime.

Another area that will be upgraded is "delinquency" cases. These can involve some serious crimes, but the bill gives the courts more latitude to treat each child on a case-by-case basis rather than the one-size-fits-all approach of the past.

The underlying idea is that not all kids in the system should be treated as hardened criminals. Some are abused or neglected. Some have made serious mistakes, but can be coached away from crime with decisive intervention short of jail time. As a member of the board of directors of the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, the Muscogee County Juvenile Drug Court and Big Brothers Big Sisters Association of Greater Columbus, I believe kids who are given a fair shake in life can respond accordingly. The current system is imperfect and we need to work to improve it.

So here is the bottom line: It is not often you can do the right thing and save money. The reforms will provide more effective intervention for children. They will give judges more information about the background of a child and latitude to act on that information in order to make decisions that balance the child's need for fair treatment and the community's need for justice.

Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, is chairman of the Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee.

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