Effective Jan. 1, the legislation passed in May 2013 aims to reduce the number of juvenile offenders in custody and save money.
“The biggest effects for us are really going to be on the dependency side as opposed to the juvenile justice side. It means a lot of new timelines for kids that are coming into foster care, a lot more hearings, a lot more court oversight,” Bartow County Juvenile Court Judge Velma Tilley said.
Under the 248-page HB 242, which was sponsored by District 14 Rep. Christian Coomer, the most serious offenders would remain in custody and those convicted of minor offenses placed in community-based programs.
In addition, the legislation created a new classification — children in need of services, or CHINS.
“On the juvenile justice side, one of the impacts is on the kids that we used to call ‘unruly’ kids are now, there’s a new category called children in need of services,” Tilley said. “We’re going to be a protocol court for the state, which is an exciting new adventure for us, and so we’re going to try to be dealing with those kids in a diversionary way. We’ve always dealt with those kids in a diversionary way, but we’re going to try to deal with the whole family and try to help the entire family with the problems that have brought the child to court.”
As one of two protocol courts in the state, Bartow will receive funding for a coordinator for the CHINS court.
“Some courts they’re accountability courts. They’re drug-treatment courts. There are mental health courts. There are child support courts. … So what that is, we’re going to have a … it’s funding a coordinator who will then oversee what will essentially be an accountability-type court for that population of children and families,” Tilley said. “It will be different from drug court-type things because we’re hoping not to have the kids not be in court at all. We’re hoping to get them before they come in the court door; they’ll essentially come in the court door but they won’t come in the courtroom door. We’ll divert the family to the services that they need so they don’t have to be involved with the Department of Juvenile Justice, they don’t have to be brought with [Division of Family and Children Services], maybe they get mental health services, whatever services the family might need that keeps them from going deeper into those systems.”
HB 242 stemmed from the recommendations in late 2012 by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians.
In that report, the council pointed out that, for 2013, Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice received $300 million — nearly two-thirds of that goes to out-of-home facilities, which can cost as much as $90,000 per bed, per year. In comparison, community-based programs average about $3,000 per person.
Tilley is a proponent of more programs and services within the community.
“We need mental health services, but we do have those in this community, we just need to be able to access them,” she said, adding that the local court did not qualify for millions in grant funds because the court did not incarcerate youth at a high enough rate.
In addition to cutting costs, the law targets juvenile recidivists, cutting the rate at which youth return to jail. Currently, the recidivism rate for juveniles is about 65 percent.
Now, through the law, the DOJJ will be tasked with developing assessment tools.
The Associated Press reported that the first will be used to determine whether the person should be detained pending a court hearing. Second, the risk level of the offender will be assessed to help the judge determine the best sentence. The third tool will help assess the factors that may contribute to a youth reoffending and develop a plan to address those.
Judges, under the law, will not be able to lock up juveniles who commit “status offenses,” acts that are only prohibited by law because of the offender’s age, like truancy and running away. The CHINS system will be used to address those offenders. Agencies — from the DOJJ and DFCS to law enforcement — will create a plan that lays out requirements for the youth as well as parents and guardians, thus addressing the cause of the problem and not just the “symptoms.”
“There are family problems and it’s hard to deal with systemic family systems that are endemic family systems where, if you’ve had parents that are incarcerated, you have parents that are committing crimes, where there’s a great deal of lack of supervision for one reason or another, and sometimes it’s because parents are working instead of their parents are not always just negligent or not doing the right thing, it’s just that they’re trying to make ends meet and make a living,” Tilley said. “If you don’t have supervision for kids who absolutely need supervision, then it’s a problem.
“Another problem that we have is we do need services for kids that we don’t necessarily have. We’ll have to see with the Affordable Care Act how that might play out because, not only is that supposed to cover physical health, it’s also supposed to cover mental health. Maybe we can have some increase in services where families have fallen through the cracks that have not been eligible for Medicare or PeachCare or don’t have insurance.”
For those young people committing offenses, judges will no longer be able to commit them unless they have four prior convictions, and one must be a felony.
For Tilley, the results will be a wait-and-see.
“… We were not a high incarceration court. We did a lot of interventions, or we tried to do a lot of interventions prior to incarcerating,” she said. “Even with that said, we did incarcerate some kids, and you know, it is of some concern that we may be limited more than we would want to be limited, even us, even us that didn’t lock up a lot of kids. But we’ll see. The goal is to try to treat problems. We still, I mean, there are still incarceration sanctions for very serious offenses.”
Despite any doubts, Tilley said the focus on young people is a step in the right direction.
“The focus on our young people, that’s a huge plus, the fact that people are paying attention to what’s happening with our young people both the children that are being abused and neglected and those that are in trouble,” she said. “I think that’s a very positive aspect of this reform. We don’t want our kids slipping through the cracks. They are going to grow up, and if we don’t meet their problems now, we’re going to have bigger problems later.”
Bartow County’s juvenile system works with the assistance of numerous volunteers. Tilley encouraged anyone interested to contact the court.
“… Anyone who would like to volunteer and be a part of the solution and not part of the problem or just complaining about the problem, we would love to have them.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.