Juvenile justice should be a focus for Georgia

In her final State of the Judiciary address before the General Assembly today, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein is expected to focus on an issue that needs serious thought in our state — juvenile justice.

“Today, we as Georgians — and as a nation — stand at a crossroads in juvenile justice history. We have learned, just as we did with adult criminal justice, that cracking down on juvenile crime is not enough. We must also be smart about juvenile crime and take action to reduce it,” Hunstein said in one of the excerpts of her speech, set for 11 a.m. today, that were released earlier.

How many Georgia youths are in the state’s juvenile justice system? The number may surprise you. In 2011, 40,226 youth were dealt with in one fashion or another by the Department of Juvenile Justice. The average daily census in department facilities was just under 2,000, with nearly 14,000 each day in at-home or non-secure residential treatment programs. The delinquent recidivism rate of juveniles rose from 27.6 percent in 2003 to 33.5 percent in 2009, according to the DJJ’s 2011 report on the subject.

In an appearance last month before the Joint Appropriations Committee of the Legislature, Avery Niles, commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, which has an annual budget of about $300 million from the state, brought up some of the issues that his department is dealing with.

In discussing his department’s needs, Niles pointed out that the DJJ is dealing with offenders who are “older, more aggressive and staying longer.” The types of crimes they are committing are more severe. In 2001, half of the inmates at Georgia’s youth detention centers were classified as felons. Last year, more than 90 percent of those committed to DJJ facilities were designated felons. In that same time, the percentage of the DJJ centers’ population that is 17 and older has increased from fewer than one out of four — 24 percent — to 60 percent, three out of every five. Half of the those committed to DJJ centers have substance abuse problems or mental illness issues.

Not all of the state’s 17-year-old offenders, however, are housed in DJJ facilities. Some have already “graduated” to the Department of Corrections’ state prisons. The DOC this week listed 63 17-year-old inmates, with another 184 18-year-olds. Each ascending age bracket gets more populous, with 493 19-year-olds, 862 20-year-olds and 1,280 inmates who are 21. DOC inmates in the 17-21 age range comprise 5.26 percent of the DOC’s overall prison population.

The average stay for a youth in one of Georgia’s DJJ detention facilities was 26 days, but Niles told lawmakers that youth adjudicated through a superior court or committed as a designated felon stay in the centers five months to one year. The department is planning the construction of two facilities that will expand the beds and allow the more troublesome inmates — Niles described them as the most aggressive and challenging, with high behavior-management and programming needs — to be moved to a special management facility, which should relieve disruptions that population group causes at the centers.

The question is how to divert troubled youth from a future of continually returning to the justice system. Niles said that juvenile justice’s culture has to move toward one that includes both rehabilitation and punishment. The DJJ’s delivery of services goal, he said, is to provide committed youth with education and technical and life skills training, operating as Georgia’s 181st school district. Hunstein is a member of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which this year has focused on improving the state’s system for dealing with juvenile justice.

One out of every three youths who enter the justice system returns to it within a year. Nearly two-thirds — 65 percent — of those now housed in Georgia DJJ centers will commit another crime within three years of being released.

The best chance to interrupt that criminal cycle comes long before a defendant in his mid-20s is, once again, standing before a Superior Court judge awaiting sentencing. If Georgia can figure out a way to reclaim our youth when they are in their teens — and younger — that cycle can be interrupted.

“If we thought the poor return on our investment in the adult arena warranted criminal justice reform, surely the poor return on our investment in children warrants juvenile justice reform,” Hunstein says.

Many will pursue criminal activities regardless, but, given help and guidance, many can be diverted from a road to ruin. And every success story will pay huge dividends today and in the future.