January 2014

Juvenile Justice in Georgia - Examining the First Year of House Bill 242

Posted by Andrew Serrano

Georgia's Past Problems

As is the case in many states, juvenile justice is a highly scrutinized topic in Georgia. In 1994, state legislators made juvenile justice laws stricter, sending a segment of convicted youths to adult prisons and increasing sentences for violent offenders. After twenty years of analysis, legislators determined that the changes were not working. Felony recidivism rates were equal for youths incarcerated in both juvenile and adult detention centers (within three years of release, 24.6 percent in youth facilities and 24.7 percent in adult prisons committed a new felony).

Additionally, many juveniles became caught in the criminal justice system for non-violent offenses, spending time locked up, out of school, and away from their families. During incarceration, the youths failed to receive impactful rehabilitation, despite costing the state exorbitant sums of money.

The Department of Juvenile Justice faced criticism, with high recidivism rates indicating a system where youths were not properly rehabilitated and millions of dollars were squandered. The '94 changes were flawed, and youths were continuing to offend at unacceptable rates.

Finding Solutions - Enter 242

Resulting from these years of turmoil, alternative methods were sought. Arguably the most important change thus far has been the implementation of House Bill 242, which became effective statewide on January 1, 2014.

One of the most impactful components of the bill gave county judges the ability to offer alternatives to incarceration to non-violent youth offenders. Rather than incarcerate young offenders in state detention facilities, judges were given the ability to place them into community-based programs. Another key element of the bill was the removal of automatic incarcerations for youths who commit low-level offenses, known as "status offenses", which include running away from home and skipping school.

Research shows that community-based programs are more effective than incarceration in rehabilitating offenders, both youth and adult. Additionally, community-based programs are significantly less expensive than jail. Community based-programs average around $3,000, while a year in a detention center can cost $90,000 per youth. As of December 2013, more than two-thirds of DJJ's budget went to the operation of costly detention centers.

Community-based programs allow youths to stay in school, while receiving more access to counseling, health care, and pro-social activities than detention centers offer. Evidence-based practices such as Multisystemic Therapy, Functional Family Therapy, Thinking for a Change, and Aggression Replacement Training have decades of strong data and have been implemented in multiple counties.

Insights from the Field

A conversation with Sedgrid Lewis, CSI's State Director of Youth Services in Georgia, shed light on the impacts that the bill has had in its first year.

Mr. Lewis said that residents and stakeholders are generally aware of the bill. A major local impact has been increased accountability for counties, with focus on the proper spending of funds. If counties do not spend their allocated money correctly, they will have to return it.

The state has been giving money to counties, allowing them more discretion to choose which intervention models work best for their youth. The models have been analyzed by collaborative working groups which include judges and court administrators. Counties can give their populations individualized services that fit logistically, with the goal of increasing a youth's chances for successful completion of the program.

As predicted, rehabilitating young offenders using community-based models has provided a huge cost benefit to counties. By placing youths into programs and avoiding the high costs of incarceration, Mr. Lewis says the counties have enjoyed substantial savings.

Though there have been several Requests for Proposal released for community-based programs, Mr. Lewis says that more can be done to increase their availability to youth offenders, as well as advocate their benefits. While counties have been successfully implementing community-based programs and seeing strong data as a result, the successes are not necessarily marketed to the general public. On a local level, communities can be more aware of the data collected, allowing them to clearly see the benefits of House Bill 242.

Thinking Long-Term

While community-based programs are beneficial due to their monetary savings alone, the outcomes hold the true value. Many of the programs that have been implemented have decades' worth of statistics showing the effects they have had in troubled teens' lives.

Mr. Lewis hopes that more emphasis is placed on long-term outcomes. Tracking the lives of rehabilitated youths three, five, or ten years down the road will reveal the lasting effects of the bill on Georgia's communities. Have the youths stayed out of the criminal justice system? Have they graduated high school, college, or technical school? Are they contributing to their local economies and communities? Are they able to provide for their families? These questions must be answered to effectively measure successes and identify needed changes.

House Bill 242 looks to be a needed step in the right direction from the hardened juvenile justice laws of the past twenty years. Looking at results, tracking outcomes, and thinking analytically will help Georgia's youths over time. With increased awareness and support of community-based programs for non-violent offenders, more juveniles will turn their lives around and avoid recidivating. Less juvenile crime will lead to enormous financial savings, fewer youths in prison, and improved public safety for Georgia's residents.