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.


The Unique Challenge of Georgia Juvenile Repeat Crime

This post also appears at Mike Klein Online.

The devil is always in the details and sometimes details are like trying to put lipstick on a pig.  The recidivism rate for Georgia juveniles is a case in point.

One-in-two juveniles leave the system and do not return within three years.  But one-in-two are back within three years, usually because of a new crime, violation of a court order or a probation offense.  There is a cash cost for that level of failure and there also is a human cost.

When the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform convened this summer it heard primarily generalities about juvenile justice from expert analysts.  When the Council met this week it was taken into the weeds, deeper into data, and some members had their eyes opened a bit wider.

“The question is what do we do from here and how do we improve the recidivism rate,” said Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.  “The recidivism rate is around 50 percent and that’s not acceptable.”  State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver described the one-in-two recidivism rate as “very scary” and Douglas County District Attorney David McDade asked, “Are we spending our dollars in a way that protects public safety?  That’s the whole driver for me.”

Powered by literally dozens of power points, Pew Center on the States public safety performance project analysts dove deep into violent and property crime data; the ages, gender and ethnicity data for juvenile offenders; the relationships between status, misdemeanor and felony crimes committed by juveniles; long-and-short term incarceration trends; system cash costs and how the state conducts risk assessment.

All states do not compile and report exactly the same juvenile data and for that reason Pew did not compare Georgia against any other state.   “What we can say for this data is the recidivism rate here in Georgia is not getting better,” said Pew Center policy analyst Jason Newman.

Pew’s Newman, Ellen McCann and their team analyzed ten years of records from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Conference of Juvenile Court Justices. In several categories they benchmarked June 30 in 2002 and 2011 to create valid comparisons.

The analysis was challenging because 20 percent of juveniles on probation are from Georgia counties that operate their own juvenile court and probation systems and do not report data to the state.  “Tracking that information was difficult at best,” said McCann.

Among the key findings:  Georgia juveniles detained in state facilities on June 30 in the two benchmark years (2002 and 2011) declined by about 1,000 to 1,917 last year but that is not because of reduced criminal activity.

Policy changes in 2005 and 2009 reduced the maximum time juveniles can be detained in some secure facilities and budget cuts that reduced bed space is also a factor.  ”I’m really interested in what the lack of bed space has done,” said state Rep. Oliver.

Juvenile felony and misdemeanor arrests for violent or property crimes declined from about 12,000 four years ago to about 9,000 last year but that represents no real improvement since 2002.  “Youth arrests are down recently but the trends overall are staying flat,” McCann said.

The majority detained in state custody are African-American; 69 percent in state facilities and 58 percent in community settings.  The average youth who enters the juvenile justice system is 15 years old and youths who are designated felons remain in state custody or supervision for four years.  Males are 84 percent of the population in secure facilities and 72 percent in community settings.

Juveniles processed for felonies increased 19 percent and youths 17 years old or younger charged with misdemeanors increased 18 percent between 2002 and 2011.  There was a decline by about half in status cases.  Status offenses are any incidents that would not be considered a crime if the offender was an adult.

Georgia will spend $300 million this fiscal year on juvenile justice incarceration and supervision.  About 41,000 juveniles per year enter the system.  The daily headcount is about 16,000 total in secure confinement and community settings.  It costs about $250 per day for juveniles in custody.

There will be a definite Special Council focus this fall on who should to be detained in a secure facility.  Pew said 40 percent of youths in secure facilities are low-risk to re-offend.   Last year the Council recommended alternative treatment programs rather than time in state penitentiaries for low-risk adults.

“The real question becomes can we be more efficient, keeping public safety in mind, dealing with these folks in a less expensive manner?” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs.

The next Council meeting will be at 9:30am Tuesday, September 18 in room 506 of the Paul Coverdell Legislative Office Building.   The Council owes its recommendations to Governor Nathan Deal and legislative leaders before the end of the calendar year.


Georgia Special Council Turns its Attention to the Kids

One challenge in almost every policy discussion is how to make the numbers mean something.  So, let’s hope these numbers mean something.  The annual cost to fully incarcerate someone in Georgia’s juvenile detention system is $98,000 per bed, more than five times greater than adult prison system per person costs.  On the other hand, the state share is about $4,300 per pupil in the K-12 public school system.  One is an investment in the future. The other is simply shocking.

“Where is that money going?  Where is that $98,000?”  That question – asked rhetorically – was among several posed this week when the newly reconstituted Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform held its first meeting to consider a vast rewrite of the state juvenile code.  The Council retained all 13 members whose work helped to craft ideas for this year’s adult criminal justice system reforms, but it added eight new members, several with juvenile code expertise.

The Council is also expected to consider some unfinished business from the 2012 adult system reforms; in particular, more work on earned compliance credits, mandatory minimum safety valve sentencing ideas, and possible decriminalization of some traffic offenses.  But make no mistake about it; the main course on this year’s menu will be juvenile justice reform.

“States across the country including Georgia are facing very high per child costs in the juvenile system,” Pew Center on the States public safety analyst Jason Newman told the Council.  Part of the reason for higher expense is the juvenile system has costs that are not found in the adult system.  For example, mandatory education and especially special education which is costly.

Newman also told the Council, “Most states are not getting very good outcomes.”  That includes Georgia; 60 percent of juveniles who serve time in secure facilities commit another crime within three years.  They return to the juvenile system, or after age 18 show up in the adult system.

This year the General Assembly nearly enacted a package of significant juvenile reforms.  A bill that unanimously passed the House (HB 641) was sidelined because of questions about state expense and how local communities would afford services they would be asked to provide.  The bill has existed in various forms for about five years, with lots of stakeholder contributions.

The Special Council faces a December 31 deadline to submit its recommendations to Governor Nathan Deal and the General Assembly.  Legislation is expected in the 2013 Legislature.  The Council will again receive technical assistance from the Pew Center and this new venture is joined by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which has decades of juvenile code expertise.

There is a great deal more to this conversation than questions about incarceration or expansion of community-based alternatives, similar to the path being implemented in the adult system. For example, the juvenile code as envisioned in HB 641 would address juveniles who are unruly, but their actions would not be crimes as adults.  Some Council members indicated they want to consider how to decide whether 17-year-old offenders should be treated as juveniles or adults.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice will spend $300 million this fiscal year.  That will pay for seven Youth Development Campus facilities where juveniles can be held as long as two years; this is the juvenile equivalent of the state adult prison system.  DJJ operates 20 Regional Youth Detention Centers where juveniles are held while awaiting adjudication for an offense.   The department is also responsible for some 14,000 youths in community-based settings.

When you look at all the services provided – and all the locations where service is provided – the state DJJ interacts with about 41,000 juvenile offenders per year and it maintains a daily headcount of almost 16,000 offenders in its secure detention or community-based programs.

Forty-five percent of those will commit a new crime within three years, and as stated above, that number is 60 percent for those who are sentenced to a secure facility.  “That rate has increased slightly over the last eight to nine years,” Pew’s Newman told the Special Council.  “So despite significant costs the state is actually seeing recidivism rates that are on the rise.”

“With all due respect, those numbers are lower than I thought,” said Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry, who is newly appointed to the Council.  “It depends on what you are asking,” Newman said.  “If you’re talking about re-arrested those numbers are higher. These are just the ones that are re-adjudicated,” meaning, they are back inside DJJ facilities or programs.

The Special Council did not announce a timetable for next meetings.  It will divide into work groups.  State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Governor’s Office deputy executive counsel David Werner are co-chairs.  “Nothing is off the table,” Boggs told the panel.  “We want to make sure that we are inclusive.”

A longer version of this post also appears on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum Blog.


Did Longer Time Served Reduce Crime or Just Cost Money?

During the past five years there has been extensive discussion in Georgia and nationally about the relationship between prison costs and public safety. Texas and Kansas were the earliest states to enact reforms in 2007.  Then the recession hit, inmate counts were viewed as budget busters and other states jumped aboard the reform wagon.  Georgia passed significant new law this year and is in the earliest stages of implementation that will take years to evaluate.

Most analysis here and nationally focused on the growth in state inmate populations during the past two decades.  That is because politically popular 1990s do-the-crime, do-the-time policies were enacted with faith in the idea that longer time served by bad people would reduce crime.

New research this month from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project has concluded, “Experts differ on precise figures, but they generally conclude that the increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s.”  States individually have to decide their own balance between some improvement and $10.4 billion in extra cost to state corrections systems.

What we know today – and it took almost two decades to figure this out – is a lot of people sent to prison were non-violent personal drug users who posed little threat to anyone else, or they were sick and needed medical help more than prison time. More states now understand they must decide whether drugs are a crime or an illness.

When you look closer at national data, inmate populations have sharply accelerated for longer than 30 years.  The country had 320,000 state prisoners in 1980, about 740,000 in 1990 and that more than doubled to 1.543 million over the next 20 years ending in 2010, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

You can go back farther and create an intriguing 1925 to 2010 comparison.  Back in the middle of the Roaring 20’s the country had fewer than 92,000 state prisoners and a population of 115 million.  If state prisoner and national populations had grown at identical percentage rates today we would have 1.945 billion people in the country.  We are very good at locking up people.

Pew’s new report, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” studied data from 35 states including Georgia.  Pew said time served by inmates released in 2009 was 36% longer than inmates released in 1990.   Longer time served had huge financial impacts on state budgets.  Pew says the extra cost in Georgia was $536 million.  You can see their calculations here.

“It certainly is understandable that penalties are raised when society or policy makers don’t feel penalties reflect the seriousness of the offense,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. “But most often that’s not been the driving factor.  It was a sense that stiffer penalties would be effective at reducing those crimes.”

Average time served for all crimes increased most in Florida, up 166% compared to the 35-state average of 36%.  Georgia was up 75% (sixth highest among 35 states) and North Carolina up 86% (third highest). In time served for violent crimes, Florida was up 137%, North Carolina up 55% (tied for sixth highest) and Georgia up 41% (11th highest) against a 37% average increase.

Drug sentence strategies and time served are an extreme conversation.  At one end you have personal users.  At the other end you have traffickers and manufacturers.  Pew compared time served by the most serious offenders.  Florida sentences were up 194%, Georgia was up 85% (fifth highest) and North Carolina up 38% (17th highest).  Drug sentences served in Tennessee actually decreased by 9% during the twenty-year cycle.

Florida time served for property crimes grew by 181%.  Georgia was fifth highest at 68%.  North Carolina’s increase was 20% and Tennessee sentences were 45% shorter.

Gelb said Pew’s research “reinforces the notion that state policy choices determine or drive the size and cost of state prison populations, not so much crime rates or broad demographic trends.  These numbers go up or down based on how policy makers respond to situations rather than forces that are largely out of their control.”

The Department of Corrections says Georgia had 54,373 inmates on June 8 this year; that is up from 52,478 last year.  Governor Nathan Deal signed a criminal justice reform law last month that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

Georgia prisons cost $1 billion a year; probation and parole services add another $400 million.  Alternative court programs for mental health and some but not all drug offenders and other changes are predicted to save the state $264 million over the next four years.  The belief is these changes can be made without compromising public safety.

Georgia criminal justice reform will extend beyond implementation of this year’s new law.  The state Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform will reconvene this summer. Governor Deal has said the council will be asked for juvenile justice and code recommendations that could result in the state’s first comprehensive rewrite of those laws in several decades.

Pew analyzed National Corrections Reporting Program data voluntarily submitted by the 35 states and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Click here to read the Pew summary.  Click here to read fact sheets on all 35 states.

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


An Update on Juvenile Justice Reform in Georgia

The outlook was bright when the House voted 172 – 0 to pass ambitious legislation that would rewrite nearly every section of the state’s juvenile code.  But the outlook proved to be too bright when the Governor’s Office said it wanted more financial analysis and the current bill died.

Much like adult criminal justice reforms, the bill emphasized treatment over incarceration when appropriate for juveniles.  It also made changes to policies that regulate foster care, permanent placement hearings, adoption codes, family mitigation hearings, children who are status offenders and the rights of parents.  None of the changes would have been enacted until July 1, 2013.

Advocates – and there are many inside and outside government — believed they could work out funding details before July 2013 and during the next General Assembly.  That strategy came up short at the Governor’s Office and the bill never reached the Senate.  It has been at least five years since hard work was begun to rewrite the code and it will be at least one more.

Resources:  House Bill 641.  Georgia Public Policy Foundation Issue Analysis.


An Update on Adult Corrections Reform in Georgia

When the final ink was dry, everyone in the Georgia legislature agreed it is time to move forward with widespread criminal justice reform.  The House voted 162-0 and the Senate 51-0 in March on legislation that will emphasize treatment programs over hard-time incarceration for some property crime offenders and low-level drug users.  From the beginning, supporters said these are not going-soft-on-crime strategies.

New ideas adopted this year recognize the state cannot continue to absorb more than the $1.5 billion per year that it spends on prisons, parole and probation.  State prisons hold 56,000 inmates and each day local jails contain hundreds to thousands of inmates who are waiting for an empty state bed.  Georgia also has 22,000 adult parolees and 156,000 on felony probation.

These ideas will take years to fully incorporate.  They include new and expanded accountability courts, especially drug and mental health courts that will reroute eligible offenders into treatment programs with severe oversight.  New definitions and penalty levels were established for several property crimes including theft, burglary, shoplifting and forgery.

The state will move toward prosecution of drug offenses based on the type and weight of drugs to clarify the distinction between casual users, sellers and traffickers.  Child abuse laws were tightened as were requirements for reporting suspected sexual abuse and suspicion of human trafficking.

Criminal justice reform is not a single year issue.  It will take money and time to develop public and private resources.  Sheriffs and the county district attorneys are concerned about the impact of reform on their budgets, facilities and staffs. Everyone already knows this will take a steep learning curve and some corrections are likely.  Governor Nathan Deal kept the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform intact and it is expected to have new assignments this year.

Resources:  House Bill 1176.  Georgia Public Policy Foundation Issue Analysis.