A commission of judges, prosecutors, educators and lawmakers gave final approval last week to recommendations for shifting responsibility for most children now in the juvenile-justice system to county governments where they will be dealt with while living at home. The lockup facilities the state runs will be reserved for the toughest cases -- those who are violent or considered the most likely to break the law again.
For Georgians wondering how well the proposed reforms will work, there is the example of Texas which instituted them five years ago. Lone Star State officials were prompted by a widespread sexual-abuse scandal in the juvenile system there.
While Georgia has experienced problems with unprofessional behavior from employees of its own Department of Juvenile Justice -- as came to light in investigations triggered by the death of a teen-aged inmate at a facility in Augusta last year, the overriding motivation for reforms here is simply the desire to save money. Locking up a juvenile cost $90,000 annually, which is more than an adult prisoner costs.
Texas did see overall costs decline since completing its shift from a state-run to a county-run system for most youths.
Five years ago the number of Texas youths locked up in state-run detention centers was about 4,700. Since then, the number has steadily dropped, and now it is less than 1,500 - more than a two-thirds reduction.
Equally important, the juvenile crime rate has decreased significantly, roughly during the same period, according to Jeanette Moll, juvenile-justice policy analyst at the think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation. The number of arrests dropped from 141,000 in 2005 to 116,000 in 2010, an 18 percent decrease.
Moreover, thanks to a significantly lower number of crimes and incarcerated youths, whose ages range from 10 to 17, the state has already saved about $200 million.
"We've come a long way," said Benet Magnuson, policy attorney at the advocacy group Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "Thanks to a series of reforms, we've taken many kids out of state-run facilities and keep them closer to their homes where they are helped or rehabilitated."
But like other advocates for troubled youngsters, Magnuson knows those reforms - which turned a dysfunctional system into what former critics now consider a model for other states - would not have happened if newspaper reports of widespread sexual and physical abuse at those facilities had not been published in 2007.
The state acted quickly, mainly because the sexual and physical abuse scandal blew up barely a month after the Texas Legislature had begun its biennial session of 140 days. Outraged legislators rushed bills aimed at overhauling the corrupt juvenile justice system and at punishing the perpetrators and officials who were aware of or suspected the abuse but did nothing to stop it.
"There were some people who were asleep at the switch," recalled state Sen. Kel Seliger, then-vice chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, one of two legislative panels that investigated the reports of brutality.
However, if anything positive came out of the nightmare many of the incarcerated youths lived through it is that it forced the Legislature to overhaul the juvenile justice system to prevent future abuse as much as possible, said Seliger, R-Amarillo.
"Did everything turn out perfectly?" Seliger asked. "No, nothing ever does. But it was a move in the right direction."
Reforming the Texas juvenile system has taken time, and in last year's legislative session, the lawmakers passed a bill that even the harshest critics of the juvenile justice system say is helping Texas achieve its goal of rehabilitating and educating young offenders.
The major reforms included changing a law that automatically sent youngsters convicted of misdemeanors to state lockups, which is one of the recommendations of the Georgia commission as well. In addition, the Texas Legislature authorized $100 million for four-year, community-based programs that help rehabilitate young offenders who otherwise would be sent to a state-run facility far away from home.
Yet, despite the progress made, the Texas juvenile justice system is still dealing with serious problems.
For instance, though there are fewer youths incarcerated, those who are tend to fight more or lash out at facility employees, noted Bill Monroe, senior director of finance and technology at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.
"Yes, we are dealing with fewer children, but they are more violent," he said. "We have had some challenges working with our more difficult youth."
For Michelle Deitch, other problems are just as worrisome.
"Youth-on-youth violence is still high, and the (guards') use of paper spray is unacceptably high," said Deitch, a recognized juvenile system expert at the LBJ School at the University of Texas. "We need better gang management and early intervention."
Mental health problems among locked-up youths are equally troubling, said state Rep. James White, who is also a school teacher.
"We have some gaps when it comes to juvenile mental health," said White, R-Hillister, a member of the Corrections Committee in the Texas House. "Somehow you have to do something really bad before we take action."
Keeping the most challenging youths in the state system allows the counties to deal with the others who get into trouble for skipping school, running away from home and other offenses that wouldn't be crimes if committed by adults.
County oversight is much cheaper, according to Moll, the think-tank analyst. The average daily cost for each incarcerated youth in any of Texas' six state-run detention centers is over $400, but in county facilities it is about $140 less.
Texas -- like Georgia is planning -- took some of money it had spent on its state-run system and transferred it to the counties. Some critics in Georgia have expressed fear that state officials would shift responsibilities to the local governments but not shift adequate funds.
That hasn't been a problem in Texas.
If Texas were indeed to pass the cost of reforming the youngsters to the counties, the local governments would have the option of closing their facilities, Moll said. Thus, the Legislature has a strong incentive not to create any unfunded mandates.
However, Seliger cautioned about getting excited over the cost savings the reforms to the juvenile justice system have triggered.
"This was not intended to be a money-saving issue," he said. "It was intended to reform the system."