Local News

January 19, 2014

Juvenile justice laws focus on support, not detention

Last year, about 300 juveniles that authorities considered “delinquent” or “unruly” either for committing crimes or for other problematic behaviors were sent to face a judge in Whitfield County Juvenile Court.

This year, that number is expected to drop significantly as a result of reforms to Georgia’s juvenile justice system that took effect Jan. 1.

“We are anticipating that the number of CHINS (Children in Need of Services, a classification that used to be referred to as “unruly” cases) that will be sent to court to drop drastically,” said Allison Lance, chief intake and probation officer for Whitfield County Juvenile Court. “We are also anticipating the number of delinquent cases to be lower as well.”

Those who work in the juvenile justice system say the reforms to the state’s juvenile justice code are fairly comprehensive, changing both minor and significant aspects of the law. Juveniles can no longer be sent to detention for being runaways — except in a few cases where they can be detained for no longer than 24 hours. “Status crimes” — acts like truancy or underage drinking that are crimes only because of the age of the person who committed them — generally can’t be used to commit someone to detention.

Parents of “unruly” children — those deemed to have significant problems with misbehavior — for the most part can no longer be committed to detention if their children’s “unruliness” is their only offense. There were 242 “unruly” cases in Whitfield County last year and 468 delinquent cases, although only about 300 of those cases combined went to court.

“The rest were diverted out with services or intervention programs and dismissed without ever going to court,” Lance said.

Those sorts of services and interventions are exactly what lawmakers hope everyone will see more of as a result of the reforms, said state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton.

“No. 1 is not incarcerating kids, not putting kids into the detention system when there are better alternatives,” Bethel said. “We don’t want to see the children in need of services enter the cycle.”

That cycle is one of high recidivism, one in which many juveniles who are detained aren’t rehabilitated by the process at all. According to a report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, a document that helped shape debate on the reforms, “ ... More than half of the youth in the juvenile justice system are re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release, a rate that has held steady since 2003.”

“It doesn’t work. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Bethel said. “It costs the state about $90,000 a year to house a juvenile in the system ... We’ve spent a lot of money on something that’s not working.”

The report states that community-based programs — including counseling, mentorship and other measures — will eventually save taxpayer dollars that were being used to detain kids. Those funds can instead eventually be put back into funding those programs, officials said.

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