In Georgia, Getting Smart on Juvenile Crime

lashATHENS– There are a dozen or so people around the large table. Men and women from the police department, Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Family and Children Services, the school system, the juvenile court, mental health providers and my own organization, Georgia Conflict Center. Everyone pulls out their laptops and notepads, and the clerk begins to read the first file.

We’ve come together at the invitation of the county’s juvenile court judge, Robin Shearer. Our task is to look at kids who have come to the court’s attention and figure out the best way to support them and their families in making sure their involvement with the justice system doesn’t go any further. Often the kids and their families are known to various organizations, and it is common to see multi generational involvement with police, DFCS, and similar services.

Judge Shearer is also President of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges, and in that role she provided testimony to the Georgia House during the crafting of House Bill 242. The bill, passed this year, takes effect in January, and is intended to, “substantially revise, supersede, and modernize provisions relating to juvenile proceedings and enact…reforms recommended by the Governor’s Special Council on Justice Reform in Georgia.

According to a recent article in The Athens Banner Herald some two thirds of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget goes towards detention, where each prisoner costs around $90,000 per year to house. Right now some 65 percent of detained kids reoffend after release, something the new law should address through more effective data gathering and a focus on community based programs. These programs are not only cheaper, averaging around $3,000 a year, but also more likely to stop kids from getting into further trouble.

Status offenses like running away, truancy or not minding parents can longer be grounds for detention. To be committed a child will have to have commit four offenses, including at least one felony. In place of the category of “unruly” the law categorizes a troublesome kid as a “Child in Need of Services” or CHINS.

In its approach to CHINS the court here in Athens is continuing a trend that has been in place for several years. By supporting cooperation and removing barriers to sharing information between agencies the court has allowed them to form plans that make the most appropriate services available to kids and families.

Around the state some juvenile judges have been using this approach for years. The new law builds on these practices and makes them mandatory statewide. The hope is that the state will see a major drop in detention, better serve kids and save money in the process. As DJJ commissioner Avery Niles said, “When you look at it, Georgia’s getting smart on crime and getting right on crime.”

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