Hunstein: Georgia at “Crossroads in Juvenile Justice History”

This post also appears on the blog of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein declared the state is at a “crossroads in juvenile justice history” and challenged the General Assembly to expand mental health services for “clearly disturbed youngsters” during her final State of the Judiciary address, telling lawmakers, “We wait for the explosion and it will come” unless courts have more resources for dealing with juveniles who are clearly at risk to themselves and others.

Hunstein delivered her final State of the Judiciary Address to the General Assembly Thursday morning in Atlanta.  Her term as Chief Justice expires later this year.  Hunstein devoted a major section of her remarks to adult and juvenile justice system reforms.  Legislators enacted the start of adult reforms in 2012; this year they will consider a large juvenile justice system bill.

“What does a judge do with a chronic runaway girl who comes before him with untreated mental health problems and a history of being sexually exploited while living on the streets?  What does a judge do with the boy who repeatedly is charged with shoplifting but whose family is seriously dysfunctional?” Hunstein told lawmakers.

“Most juvenile judges say they do not want to send these children to locked facilities, but with no community resources and fearing for the children’s safety, they feel they have no alternative.  As one juvenile judge recently wrote, without resources at home, detention becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool in the toolbox.”

Chief Justice Hunstein opened her 27-minute address with a summary of adult reforms that are underway based on recommendations made in 2011 by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Diversion of non-violent offenders away from costly prison beds into alternative programs has enabled the state to slow the growth of its prison population.  Hunstein said the state is “on track to save $264 million in five years.”  Fewer state inmates are being held in county jails.  Twelve new drug and mental health courts opened last along with several substance abuse and mental health treatment centers.

The Chief Justice also emphasized “the beginning of a new way of handling long-term inmates who have served many years – sometimes decades – in prison.  The fact is that 95 percent of this state’s 57,000 prison inmates will eventually walk out of prison; only 5 percent will die there.”  Last month state Pardons and Paroles began to assign “max-out” inmates to residential transition centers six months before their final release date.

“But the best measure of success is counted in the many individual lives that are being changed daily as a result of these accountability courts,” Hunstein said.  She added, “I have been honored to receive personal letters from a number of the graduates.  One graduate wrote: ‘On October 31, I went to court and regained full custody of my 6-year-old son, Nicholas.  It was the happiest day of my life other than the day he was born.  I am so grateful for the opportunity of giving back when I, for so long, took away.”

The General Assembly is waiting to see legislation that would dramatically realign the state’s juvenile justice system, completely rethink the antiquated juvenile civil code and, expected in a separate bill, put a few new tools into adult system reforms from last year.

“Today, we as Georgians – and as a nation – stand at a crossroads in juvenile justice history,” Hunstein told Senate and House members.  “We have learned just as we did with adult criminal justice that cracking down on juvenile crime is not enough.  We also must be smart about juvenile crime and take action to reduce it.”

Hunstein said based on average daily population, 2,000 youths are detained in youth long-term detention centers that are the equivalent of adult prisons, youth short-term detention centers or residential programs such as group homes.  The Chief Justice said more than half committed non-violent offenses, 40 percent are considered low-risk and one-quarter were adjudicated for a misdemeanor or status offense that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.

The state spends $91,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in youth prison, vastly more than $19,000 spent per year to incarcerate an adult.  Hunstein said, “The difference in cost is based on young people’s educational and other needs that must be met under state and federal laws.

“But consider the return we get on every dollar spent housing these juveniles:  Of the 619 children in our youth prisons, nearly 65 percent will commit another offense within three years of getting out – and nearly every one of them will get out.

“We know one thing for certain:  Spending $91,000 a year to lock up a juvenile and getting 65 percent recidivism is not working,” Hunstein said.  “We can be smarter with taxpayer dollars.  More importantly, we can produce a safer Georgia.”

Juvenile justice reform legislation is expected to emphasize expansion of community treatment options when incarceration is not required and would not benefit a juvenile. Governor Nathan Deal included a $5 million line item in next year’s budget to help jump start these programs.

Presiding Justice Hugh Thompson will succeed Hunstein as Chief Justice later this year.


“Mental Health is a Huge Issue” in Georgia Justice Strategies

Note: This item has also been posted on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s website here.

Discussion about mental health and other substance abuse treatment alternatives was front and center Wednesday when criminal justice system officials addressed House and Senate joint appropriations lawmakers at the State Capitol.  “Mental health is a huge issue in all the things we do,” Judge Robin W. Shearer said on behalf of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Georgia is in the early stages of significant adult and juvenile justice system reforms that focus on how to ensure incarceration for the most serious offenders, and how to provide community treatment options for offenders who do not benefit from or even require incarceration.

Last year the General Assembly passed reforms to move the adult corrections system toward those goals.   This year legislators are expected to approve sweeping reforms to juvenile criminal law and the civil code.  Governor Nathan Deal has made reforms a personal priority and his budget devotes millions of dollars to these goals.

The importance of mental health considerations was evident early in Wednesday’s hearing.

Adult corrections commissioner Brian Owens said the state has opened alternative treatment centers in seven rural judicial circuits and this year plans to open four-to-seven more.  Two facilities were opened to treat “dually diagnosed offenders”; Owens described them as persons with mental illness who attempt to medicate themselves with legal prescriptions or illegal drugs.  The state has also opened a new residential substance abuse treatment center for males.

These options give the state capability to treat about 5,000 non-violent offenders per year in community settings rather than prisons.  “Georgia, I believe, is really at the forefront of dealing with criminal addiction (and) criminal mental health issues,” Owens said, “applying mental health resources in the community before offenders get too far down the road and we suffer a tragedy.”

Governor Deal’s Fiscal 2014 budget contains $11.6 million for the continued expansion of drug and mental health accountability courts for non-violent offenders who need community-based treatment more than they need incarceration; this builds on $10 million that Deal inserted for the same purpose into the Fiscal 2013 budget.   Next year’s proposed budget also contains a $5 million line item to create incentives to start community-based juvenile treatment options.

That is good news for juvenile judges.  “I welcome prevention dollars,” said Judge Shearer, who is president of the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been a juvenile court judge since 1993.  Shearer said, “The pendulum of whether we emphasize prevention or penalties kind of swings back and forth.  A prevention dollar is a dollar well spent.”  Shearer noted, “We are seeing children from birth until they become adults.”

By the numbers, the state adult corrections system has some 57,500 inmates and 162,600 on felony probation.  The budget is about $1.1 billion per year to support adult corrections.  The annual per bed cost for an adult inmate is about $18,000, but that cost increases for older inmates who require more advanced health care.

This week the juvenile justice system, a separate entity, had 1,741 in secure confinement and 11,941 on community supervision.  The juvenile justice department budget is $300 million. DJJ makes contact with about 52,000 juveniles per calendar year.  The annual per bed cost for a committed juvenile is above $90,000, higher than adult incarceration cost for many reasons including, DJJ operates its own school system.

Those financial numbers do not tell a complete story.  State pardons and paroles has a budget near $53 million.  Juvenile system officials, including the juvenile courts, interact with many other state agencies, making it hard to determine exactly what the state directly spends on juveniles and their justice issues.  The state easily spends $1.4 billion annually on adult and juvenile justice without factoring in even one cent of what it costs to run state and local courts.

Proposals from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — for adults and juveniles — focus on how to protect the public, reduce public expense and reduce recidivism, which is the percentage of juveniles who are re-adjudicated or adults convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release.  More than 50 percent of juveniles re-enter the justice system within three years and more than 30 percent of adults re-offend.

Owens said the number of state inmates being held in county jails is significantly down.  Twelve months ago county jails held 900 males waiting for placement in a probation detention center.  Today there are no males and about 200 females.  That is important to local governments because the state does not reimburse counties for inmates who are waiting for probation detention center placement. “Our counties will save money,” Owens said.

Juvenile justice commissioner Avery Niles told legislators, “We have become an agency that deals with both youths and adults in a juvenile setting.”  Niles was DJJ board chairman until two months ago when Governor Deal moved him to the commissioner’s office.  Niles said that about half of juveniles who enter the corrections system have drug addictions.  He described the overall population as “older, more aggressive and staying longer.”  Ninety percent of youths in DJJ custody are now designated felons.


Georgia Panel Will Propose Two Felony Crime Tiers for Juveniles

Georgia would establish a two-tiered system for felonies committed by juveniles younger than 18 years old if legislators adopt recommendations contained in a draft report.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation reviewed a partial draft that the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform is expected to vote on this week.  Importantly, the draft could be revised before Thursday’s meeting.  As currently written, it builds on principles similar to adult criminal justice system reforms enacted this year.

The draft contains a small number of adult system proposals.  Notably, the Council is expected to repeat its 2011 recommendation that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory sentence minimums in some drug trafficking cases and under specific circumstances.  Drug convictions are largely responsible for the explosive growth in state prison populations not just in Georgia but across the country.  The state Legislature did not adopt this recommendation last spring.

When it votes Thursday the 21-member Special Council is expected to recommend that felonies committed by juveniles not be treated equally. The draft said current state law “contains a single dispositional structure for nearly 30 offenses ranging from murder to smash-and-grab burglary.”  Having more than one category would ensure incarceration for convicted serious offenders and it would provide flexibility to address non-violent and low-risk offenders.

This is similar to the 2012 adult corrections system reforms that created more than one tier for crimes such as burglary.  For instance the recommendation that became state law July 1 now differentiates between the burglary of an occupied residence and the burglary of a shed or any unoccupied structure.  The adult code includes similar distinctions for other kinds of crimes.

The newly enacted adult code and the anticipated juvenile code rewrite share several common goals: Foremost, ensure public safety; second, incarcerate serious offenders as required; third, provide treatment and counseling in appropriate settings to non-violent offenders who are considered low-risk to offend; and, fourth, reduce and control unnecessary system expense.

Reducing recidivism has been and continues to be a central focus in these discussions. The Council has reviewed data that shows 65 percent of juveniles released from state confinement return to the juvenile system or enter the adult corrections system within three years of their initial release.  How to vastly reduce that recidivism percentage rate remains a high priority.

The Council is expected to recommend that eight crimes committed by juveniles would become Class “A” felonies subject to the highest levels of prosecution and penalties upon conviction.  Those eight include murder, attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, sodomy, sexual battery, child molestation and aggravated battery.  There would be no Class “B” lesser option.

Aggravated assault is one example in which the Special Council might recommend that the state adopt two tiers of prosecution.  For example, assault with a firearm against any student, teacher or other school system employee would become a Class “A” felony.  Assault on school grounds that did not include use of a firearm would become a lesser Class “B” felony.

Similarly there would be a sharper distinction between the more serious Class “A” hijacking of an occupied vehicle and the less serious Class “B” theft of an unoccupied vehicle.  Drug offenses committed by juveniles would draw a distinction between the most serious charges — sale, manufacturing or delivering drugs – and less serious personal possession charges.  Street gang activity could become either Class “A” or “B” based on contributing circumstances.

The Council is expected to propose that conviction on a Class “A” felony would trigger up to five years of state confinement followed by one year of intense supervision.  Class “B” convictions would trigger 18 months maximum confinement, up to 18 additional months in a Department of Juvenile Justice program, and then six months of mandatory supervision.

About one dozen recommendations would affect how prosecutors, judges, treatment providers and others do their work with an emphasis on improved models to evaluate juveniles, manage their cases, make certain courts have all relevant information and help offenders return to the community upon release.  Similar to this year’s adult reforms there is language about reinvesting cost-based savings back into local community programs.

The council did not address juvenile code laws that are considered outdated including adoption, guardianship, terminating parental rights and children in need of services.  All 246 pages of House Bill 641 – a juvenile code rewrite — passed unanimously last spring but the Senate did not vote amid questions about cost.  This might resurface in 2013 session legislation.

Special Council recommendations are due to Governor Nathan Deal and the General Assembly leadership before year-end.  The Legislature is not bound by law to accept any idea and it can create a bill that goes beyond the ideas that originate with the Special Council.

Note: This item has also been posted on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s website here.


State Inmates Backlog in Local Jails Is Significantly Down

What you are about to read is a big deal:  Georgia has significantly reduced the number of state custody male inmates sitting in local county jails.  Georgia corrections commissioner Brian Owens made the announcement this week during a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform meeting in Forsyth.  His comment so surprised judges, legislators, prosecutors and others that several let out a huge gasp.

“As a result of the legislation and your recommendations, today we have zero males … zero males … in county jails waiting to come into the state system,” Owens said.  “We have about 200 females but we’re going to address that come January and February.  We’ll be able to get the females out. That is huge to local budgets for our county sheriffs.”

County jails have historically been the default option when state probation detention centers are overcrowded.  County jails held 315 male state inmates and 302 females in July who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center.  Overflow issues were addressed last year by the Special Council and the 2012 General Assembly.  State law changed on July 1 to specify that offenders could spend no more than 180 days in a probation detention center.

This change pertains to felony offenders who were sentenced to not less than one year on probation or specific categories of misdemeanor offenders who subsequently violated probation terms.  After confinement for 180 days eligible offenders who are not considered a risk to public safety may be considered for transfer into probation and community supervision programs.  Also, this pertains only to offenders who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center.  Local jails still hold some other state inmates.

This week’s Special Council meeting provided a glimpse into the implementation of reforms proposed one year ago and enacted by the 2012 General Assembly in House Bill 1176.  There has been substantial progress in electronic record keeping.  New substance abuse and mental health treatment centers and day reporting centers have opened.  A program to help long-term inmates transition back into the community will launch in January.

“Talking about electronic sentencing, today 156 of 159 counties are transmitting sentences electronically to the Department of Corrections which is huge, again, a direct result of 1176,” Owens said.  More than 5,660 state inmates from 110 counties had their sentences transmitted electronically to the state.  Forty-six additional counties have agreed to use electronic reporting while just three counties – Cobb, Fayette and Jefferson – are currently not participating.

Probation detention centers are being re-purposed.  This year the Appling, Pike and Turner county detention centers were converted into residential substance abuse treatment centers.  Appling and Turner can also provide mental health services for men.

The number of day reporting centers that provide more intense substance abuse treatment at a lower cost than incarceration will expand to 15 next month when a Lookout Mountain circuit center opens in north Georgia.  Corrections opened a day reporting center in July in Savannah.  Offenders who do not comply with day reporting requirements are considered to be in violation of probation terms and they could find themselves returned to incarceration.

House Bill 1176, the criminal justice reform law, reduced some drug possession and theft maximum sentences from 60 to 38 months as of July 1 this year, the date legislation became effective.  On its own initiative the parole board reviewed 600 earlier sentences for possible reductions. State parole board member Robert E. Keller told the Council, “We changed our decisions in 191 offenders which netted a savings of 32,000 bed days and about $1.5 million.”

Last year the Special Council asked that the state rethink how it transitions long-term inmates before they are released back into the community.  Two years ago 7,495 offenders released from prisons had no parole officer; 1,592 had no probation officer. These are so-called max out prisoners who served the longest possible sentences after their convictions.  Next month about 1,000 long-term prisoners who are scheduled for release before March 2014 will be assigned to a program to help prepare them for transition back into the real world.

Parole officers will focus on their housing and employment options along with health and other services offenders will require upon their final release.   Eligible offenders will be moved from prisons into transition centers during the final 12 months of incarceration.  Offenders will sleep at the transition centers, be required to work and will surrender their earnings to cover costs.  This is a dramatic step forward from receiving $25 and a bus ticket upon release.

Next Thursday the Special Council is expected to vote on a new package of juvenile justice and adult corrections proposals.  Those will be sent to Governor Nathan Deal and it is anticipated that the 2013 General Assembly will consider and implement some new proposals.  The juvenile system, for example, has not been seriously overhauled in about 25 years.  The proposals will not be set in stone; legislators will be able to modify ideas submitted by the Special Council.

This post also appears on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum Blog.


End of an Era: Georgia Begins to Close Parole Offices

Georgia is moving quickly toward the end of an era as parole offices are being closed at a pace that will see most of them completely shuttered within the next calendar year.  A handful already are closed, about another dozen will close within weeks and the remainder will close as the state moves away from real estate toward reliance on parole officer-friendly remote technology.

“The day of the parolee reporting to a parole office is long gone,” said Michael Nail, executive director of the state board of Pardons and Paroles.  Virtual offices – two-man parole teams in vehicles – will replace real estate.  “Our officers will be in the community where parolees reside and work and it’s no longer parolees coming to where the parole officer works,” Nail said.  Teams are equipped with Android devices that connect to a Google.Gov platform.

The Pardons and Paroles board expects to save $1 million when contracts expire on leased office space statewide.  From a previous high of 48 parole offices, the state currently has about 40 still open.  Nail said 13 will close in December and nearly all others within 12-to-18 months. Those that remain open in state buildings will often share space with state probation employees.

The decision to move away from real estate and toward two-man mobile parole teams is equal parts the reality of the state budget and evidence of success that Pardons and Paroles has witnessed since it began a voice recognition parolee call-in reporting experiment.  A call-in pilot program that began 18 months ago with 1,300 parolees has expanded to almost 3,400.

Pardons and Paroles is its own agency, not part of the Department of Corrections, and it has a current fiscal year budget of just under $52.7 million.  Like nearly all state agencies it has been asked to propose 3 percent in cuts, or about $1.6 million, for the fiscal year that starts in July.  Closing under-utilized offices and moving personnel into the field is part of absorbing that cut.

Georgia has about 23,000 former penitentiary inmates on parole.  Almost one-third who have been successful under regular supervision are considered low-risk to re-offend or pose a public safety risk.  Starting in summer 2011 the state began to assign low-risk parolees to a voice recognition system in which the parolee is required to report by phone.  Software developed by Atlanta-based Anytrax can identify individual parolees and the service is available in multiple languages.

Nail said the model has succeeded on several levels.  First, just 1.7 percent of parolees who were assigned to voice recognition reporting have re-entered the system for technical violations or a new criminal charge. Second, the number of cases assigned to parole officers has declined from about 75 to about 40 with increased face-to-face emphasis on higher-risk parolees.  Third, the agency determined it does not need to maintain leases on costly real estate.

“This is what we were able to do to meet the mandated reductions,” Nail said.  “If we had not gone down that road the only thing you can cut or reduce is staff and personnel.”  The state parolee population is up about 10 percent over ten years but the number of case workers has declined about 10 percent over the past five years.  No case worker expansion is anticipated.

Pardons and Paroles has also begun an enhanced house arrest monitoring pilot project in which cell phones combined with voice recognition technology are used to track the location of parolees.  Cell phone technology enables parole officers to identify a parolee’s exact location. Think of this as a GPS type technology without GPS costs.   Anytrax charges $7 per month per parolee enrolled in its services; that cost is charged to parolees and is not paid by state dollars.

None of these changes is directly tied to criminal justice reform measures that were adopted by the 2012 Legislature and which are currently being implemented statewide.  However, voice recognition tracking and creative uses of cell phone technology are examples of innovation developed in the private sector that can be successfully applied in the public sector.

“Sometimes philosophically in government and the public safety arena we get in the mindset that we are the only ones who can effectively do our business,” Nail said.  “This has shown us we can be more effective when we reach out and find others who can assist us doing our job.”

Nail added, “This is what community supervision ought to be all about.”

This post also appears on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum Blog.