May 3, 2013

Reaching them earlier

Deal signs juvenile justice reform into law

Charles Oliver

— Early in his career, Gov. Nathan Deal served as a juvenile court judge in Hall County.

“My great frustration was when a young person came before me and something needed to be done, I had only two choices. I could send them to be incarcerated ... Or I could send them back home to be in the environment that got them into trouble in the first place,” Deal said here on Thursday. “Neither of those sometimes was the appropriate solution.”

At the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center in Dalton, Deal signed into law House Bill 242, an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system that he said will provide better options for dealing with juvenile offenders. State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, sponsored HB 242 in the Senate.

Approved unanimously by the General Assembly earlier this year, the law is designed to keep nonviolent juvenile offenders out of youth detention centers and in community-based programs. Deal said the law provides $5 million to create a voluntary grant program that gives communities incentives to offer judges more options other than incarceration for juvenile offenders. These can include substance abuse treatment or family counseling.

Deal said these options could help keep young offenders from committing more crimes and allow the juvenile justice system to focus more of its resources on more dangerous juvenile offenders. He said currently approximately half of all youth offenders end up back in juvenile detention or in prison within three years. And he said it costs the state $90,000 or more a year to keep each juvenile offender incarcerated.

“We know that’s not what we need,” he said.

Deal said the law will not only improve public safety but save taxpayers around $85 million over the next five years as well as eliminate the need to build two new youth detention centers.

Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said he believes the law will have a positive impact.

“Unfortunately, many of the people we see coming through the criminal justice system as adults we’ve seen come through earlier as youth. If we can reach them earlier, help them change their lifestyle, hopefully we won’t see them coming back later in life,” he said.

Bethel said he was honored to be present as Deal signed the bill into law.

“By focusing on the specific reason for juvenile court intervention, we will be able to identify how to get these children the help they need in order to move forward and become responsible adults,” he said.

This overhaul of the juvenile justice system follows a similar reform of the criminal justice system passed by the General Assembly and signed by Deal last year. Among other changes, that law lessened penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs and made it easier for nonviolent drug offenders to go through drug courts, such as the Conasauga Drug Court in Whitfield and Murray counties, that offer treatment instead of prison time.