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December 13, 2012

Criminal justice reform panel holds last meeting

FORSYTH — A committee appointed by Georgia’s governor to study criminal justice reform approved recommendations Thursday for the juvenile justice system that members said will improve public safety and save money.

“At the end of the day, we’ll see what’s going to be included in any legislation that might be dropped but, ultimately, it’s my opinion that if these recommendations are included in a bill and that bill becomes law, we will experience significant public safety improvements in the state and also significant cost savings,” said committee co-chairman and state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform last year made recommendations to state lawmakers on the adult criminal justice system, and much of the panel’s work was incorporated into legislation overhauling the system this year. When Gov. Nathan Deal in May extended the council’s tenure, he directed it to focus on the juvenile justice system.

At its final meeting Thursday, the council discussed changes to a draft report detailing recommendations and voted to submit the amended report to the governor. He is expected to make the final report public next week. The draft report was not made available, but committee members said their work focused on improved handling of low-risk juvenile offenders by giving judges greater discretion to deal with them in the community rather than locking them up.

The state spends about $90,000 a year for each juvenile offender being held in the long-term secure detention facilities, called youth development campuses, and those facilities have about a 65 percent recidivism rate, Boggs said. He called that statistic “significant and, quite frankly, I think, as a Georgia taxpayer, unacceptable.”

Researchers from the Pew Center on the States provided data analysis and research to the council as members met several times over the past several months to discuss ideas and priorities.

“There are a number of research-based, evidence-based programs now that states are using around the country, that Georgia’s starting to use, that have proven effective and have community-based options that can reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable and are less expensive,” Pew’s Jason Newman said.

The council looked at the possibility of increased supervision and services in the community and re-evaluating which offenders should be locked up, Newman said. By treating more low-risk offenders in their communities, the state can focus its resources in its secure facilities on the most dangerous offenders who have the greatest risk of committing additional offenses.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steven Teske was added to the council this year and was a vocal member. He said he hopes that reforms lead to fewer young people being locked up and some of the savings being diverted back into local communities so judges have resources to implement alternatives, such as electronic monitoring, therapy and holding youth in local facilities where families can be more involved in their rehabilitation.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles attended the meeting Thursday and said he is grateful for the council’s work and anxious to see what comes out of the recommendations.

Boggs and other members of the council said they believe the recommendations on juvenile justice could be included in a single bill sent to state legislators.

While the committee focused most of its energy on juvenile justice this year, members also revisited the adult criminal justice system, mostly to make recommendations about changing mandatory minimums for certain offenses, Boggs said.


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