May 5, 2013

Juvenile justice reform makes sense

The Daily Citizen

— Lock them up. Throw away the key, and hope for the best.That has been Georgia’s approach to dealing with juvenile criminals, and it’s an approach that hasn’t worked. It costs taxpayers a huge amount of money, and it doesn’t necessarily make them any safer.

As Gov. Nathan Deal noted during an appearance in Dalton on Thursday, it costs the state $90,000 a year to keep a juvenile offender locked up. And when they are inevitably released, many have neither been reformed nor scared into good behavior by their experience. Half of all juvenile offenders end up back in juvenile detention or in prison within three years of their release.

But at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center, Deal signed into law a bill that could end that cycle of criminality for some of those young people.

House Bill 242 — which was sponsored in the state Senate by Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton — gives juvenile court judges more options in dealing with nonviolent juveniles who have committed misdemeanors or status offenses, such as truancy or underage consumption of alcohol. Approved unanimously by the General Assembly earlier this year, 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.

By reaching these nonviolent juvenile offenders earlier, perhaps we can change their lifestyle and keep them from a path that leads to more severe crimes.

Meanwhile, the law reserves detention for juvenile offenders who commit the most severe and violent crimes, saving taxpayer dollars.

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.

Saving the taxpayers money and treating those who are convicted or plead guilty to minor, nonviolent crimes more equitably are two goals that mesh well. Deal and the General Assembly have done valuable work.