More Justice for Georgia’s Youth

By

Melissa Carter

Status offense system reform is occurring all over the country in different ways and at different levels. The Legislative Reforms blog series highlights recent reforms written into law at the state level, as explained by experts in the field from the featured states. This series offers readers a chance to learn about different approaches to status offense system reform and the important effects legislative changes can have.

Melissa Carter, Barton Child Law and Policy Center

Historically a socially conservative state, Georgia readily embraced a “tough on crime” stance with respect to children and youth accused of violating the law.  Notwithstanding steady declines in juvenile arrests and detention in the state since 2008, our juvenile justice policy has largely been shaped by reaction to the profile of the serious youthful offender.  Now, the state is leading the way in the necessary course correction to achieve a greater measure of justice for all youth involved with the juvenile courts.

The transformation currently underway began nearly a decade ago with efforts by advocates and stakeholders across the juvenile justice system to reorganize and modernize the state’s juvenile code. Those efforts converged in 2013 with the political leadership of Governor Nathan Deal and his Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  State leaders were confronted with a compelling data narrative showing that Georgia was expending considerable resources confining juvenile offenders who were at low risk to re-offend.  Seventy-one percent of all disposed youth in Georgia in 2011 were assessed as being low risk, and the cost of detention was estimated to be $90,000 per bed, per year.  More important, these expensive and restrictive interventions have proven ineffective; Georgia’s recidivism rate for all youth in the juvenile justice system exceeded 50 percent.

Accordingly, public policy has shifted to focus on utilizing the state’s secure facilities on higher-risk, serious offenders and reducing recidivism by strengthening evidence-based community supervision and programs.  To that end, the new law mandates the creation or revalidation of screening and assessment tools to ensure more information is available to inform the decisions made by judges and juvenile justice system staff.  Greater clarity around the needs of low-risk youth resulted in the creation of a new statutory scheme for status offenders and youth who were previously deemed “unruly” under Georgia law.  The new designation – Children in Need of Services (CHINS) – reminds us that a youth’s risky or problematic behavior is often rooted in family dysfunction, and it replaces the conventional court intervention with an interagency approach to family-centered service planning and delivery.  Moreover, Georgia law now prohibits the detention of status offenders except for brief periods before and after the first court appearance, as allowed by the federal Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA).

The new laws took effect January 1, 2014.  Six months into implementation, the reforms seem to be living up to their promise, particularly with respect to outcomes for delinquent youth and status offenders. Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice reports a reduction in their detention census, which state leaders attribute to the reforms.  Additionally, courts are reporting success at diverting CHINS cases to community resources.

Still, a good deal of work remains to be done to support the adoption of the new tools and modifications to local data collection systems.  Even more critical, local communities must have adequate resources to provide the individualized response that justice for each and every youth requires.

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ABOUT MELISSA CARTER

Melissa Carter is a Clinical Professor of Law and Executive Director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia. She is responsible for the administration of the Center, including supervision of clinical faculty, staff, and students; development and budgeting; strategic planning; and external affairs.  In addition, she directs the public policy and legislative advocacy clinics and teaches a related course in child welfare law and policy. Melissa also serves as an advisor to the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Justice for Children and as an ex-officio member of the Board of Directors of VOICES for Georgia’s Children. Carter was recently named by the Fulton County Daily Report as one of Georgia’s top lawyers under 40 “On the Rise.”

To read more about status offense reform in Georgia, check out our Notes from the Field profile on Clayton County and our blog post about HB 242’s changes to Georgia’s status offense system.