A report with recommendations from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform was made public Tuesday. The recommendations focus primarily on the juvenile justice system. But it also expands on the panel's previous recommendations for adult sentencing and corrections.
The council 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 juvenile justice.
"I wanted to build on the significant advances our state made in 2012, and the council has again offered up an excellent report that will serve as a starting point for policy makers," Deal said in a statement Tuesday. "We know there's room for dramatic improvement in the results we see in the juvenile justice system. I will work with legislators to find new solutions that provide better outcomes for public safety, for our youth and for taxpayers."
Even though the Department of Juvenile Justice spends about two-thirds of its budget — $300 million for the current fiscal year — on out-of-home facilities, more than half of the young people in the system end up being convicted of another crime within three years, the report says. That rate has held steady for about a decade. The council said the high rates of recidivism are unacceptable, especially given the cost to taxpayers, and made recommendations that it says will increase public safety and save money.
Young people who are found guilty of status offenses — which are crimes only because of the offender's age, such as truancy — or misdemeanors currently make up about 25 percent of those in out-of home placement, the report says. Many are considered to be at low risk of committing another crime. Even 39 percent of the young people locked up in the state's long-term secure detention facilities, called youth development campuses, for felony convictions that require at least a year of incarceration are considered low-risk, the report says.
"The policy recommendations will further focus the state's use of expensive, out-of-home facilities on serious, higher-risk youth," the report says. "By doing this, the state will generate savings that can be used to increase the availability and effectiveness of community-based options."
The council says its policy recommendations are projected to decrease the number of juvenile offenders in out-of-home placement by about a third, from 1,908 to 1,269, by 2018. The council estimates that its policy suggestions would save the state more than $88 million in that time period and recommends that a substantial portion of that be invested in new appropriations to support community programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism.
Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University, said she's pleased with the council's recommendations.
"The comprehensive, data-driven strategies contained in the report will position the state to be a better steward of taxpayer dollars and to serve youth more effectively, so that we have safer communities and a more productive citizenry," she said. "This effort has made Georgia a leader among states and provided leadership for a more sophisticated public conversation about how the state should treat its youth."
The council's recommendations include:
— adjusting the penalty requirements for certain serious felonies to take into account the severity of the offense and the offender's risk level;
— keeping juvenile offenders convicted of status offenses and certain misdemeanors from being locked up;
— implementing an incentive program to provide money to communities to create community-based programs to reduce recidivism;
— requiring a risk and needs assessment before detention decisions;
— establishing effective community-based programs around the state;
— implementing various data collection and auditing measures to evaluate and measure performance.
The council's recommendations for the adult corrections system include:
— clarifying some existing laws;
— requiring offenders to pay the cost of drug screens;
— developing an assessment tool to identify non-violent offenders who could be safely put into a diversion program rather than prison;
— considering a mandatory minimum safety valve to allow courts to deviate from mandatory minimums in some cases.