ATLANTA — Sweeping changes in how misbehaving youths are treated have reduced the number of teens requiring lock-up, saved taxpayers money and show signs of helping produce productive adults, according to officials.
“At the same time, thanks to new juvenile community-based alternative programs, state juvenile courts reduced new youth secure detention commitments by 62 percent during between October 2013 and June 2014,” wrote Mike Klein, a writer at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that was an early advocate for the reforms. “More than 1,600 youths were kept out of secure detention.”
The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2013 which passed the legislature unanimously shifts treatment of most delinquent children from costly, far-off state facilities to programs in their hometowns where most sleep each night in their own homes. It costs $90,000 yearly for each bed in a juvenile detention facility, amounting to a budget for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice that peaked at $300 million.
For all that money, the system still didn’t work because more than half of the kids coming out of it wound up in it again within three years. Those who had been locked up had a 65 percent chance of breaking the law again.
Now, every child entering the system is quickly evaluated for likelihood of violence. The dangerous ones go to state facilities, just like before. The low-risk go back home and submit to intensive monitoring and counseling on drug abuse, anger management, dysfunctional families and basic life skills.
The community-based approach costs about $3,000 per year.
The reforms didn’t simply transfer the problem to county governments to minimize the expense of detention. It changed the operating philosophy from punishment to rehabilitation, based on findings that most of the kids got there due to foolish mistakes rather than irreversible criminality. The goal became saving those kids who are basically good.
“The reform, it’s going right where we expected it to be,” said Avery Niles, commissioner of juvenile justice. “We’re on the verge of doing something that is near to my heart. That is redirecting the lives of these kids.”
Keeping the youths at home where they are subject to intensive supervision reduces instability in their lives and separates them from the truly hardened criminals who would either prey on them or convert them. And the community setting permits coordination between other state child social services, like educators and social workers.
For instance, over the past year Niles has asked every school with a campus police officer to also provide space for a probation officer. That way, the two can share notes on students and broaden the options for discipline.
“Before they were just automatically taking them out of school for minor infractions,” he said. “Now, they can work with that probation officer.”
That alone has reduced the number of juvenile cases going to court, resulting in a $10 million annual savings in legal and administrative costs.
“We’re not talking about chump change. We’re talking about saving lives.”
So far, 102 schools in 42 counties share 64 officers, and educators say the environment is more positive now than with the strict, zero-tolerance approach of before that handled every fight, outburst or major rule infraction with an arrest.
“It is a very successful intervention for students to have, in the school, that person there,” said State Superintendent of Schools John Barge, adding that the Floyd County school district pioneered having a probation officer on campus when he was a local educator. “It worked for us.”
The education system has done more than simply provide office space for probation officers. For the last year, it has extended access to its database of student records to both the Department of Juvenile Justice and to the Department of Family and Children’s Service, the welfare agency.
That information sharing has smoothed the transition back to class for juveniles who do wind up behind bars in a state facility. Instruction continues while in state detention, and the new standardized tests administered there get loaded into the Education Departments computers instantly like those from any other school, eliminating the delays of shipping paper files.
The state welfare agency is borrowing ideas from the juvenile system. It is seeking to tap into the Education Department’s database. And it’s also adopted a new policy to place foster children in their hometowns wherever possible to maximize constancy, said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Family and Children’s Services.
“The children that we see, both in our investigations and in our foster-care situation, are children who have been through immense trauma, children who have had immense losses in their life. The last thing you need to be doing as an educational system or as a child-welfare system is inflecting further trauma on those children and removing them from the teacher who has been constant in their lives, at least for a full year, and placing them in another school system,” he said.
Gov. Nathan Deal has appointed a task force to recommend reforms in the child-welfare system on the scale of the juvenile-justice reforms devised by a similar panel of experts and policymakers.
The philosophical shift in juvenile justice is the same one Deal engineered in handling adult law breaking.
“I think we will soon be recognized as the No. 1 state in the nation for meaningful criminal-justice reform,” he said Friday. “We have put into place reforms, all the way from the front end of diverting non-violent offenders out of our prison system and reserving it for those who committed truly heinous crimes… giving those who are involved in the criminal-justice system but are not violent the opportunity to change their lives.”
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