The state is on the brink of the most sweeping overhaul of the juvenile justice law in three decades and Rockdale is on the leading edge of those trends.
“It’s going to be a new world,” said Rockdale Juvenile Court Judge William Schneider.
At the root of the overhaul proposed in HB 242 is a shift away from incarcerating children and toward community-based programs and treatment.
“When you put a child in a detention center, that stays with the child for the rest of [his or her] life,” said Schneider. “Folks who are in detention centers are less likely to graduate and be successful in life… We need to keep the kids out of the detention centers.”
Judge Steven Teske of the Juvenile Court in Clayton County, a leading advocate for juvenile justice reform, went even further.
“We’re just making them worse when we’re putting the wrong kids in prison,” said Teske. “The people who want to throw the book at every kid, they’re the ones hurting the community and increasing crime in the community.”
The current juvenile justice system of locking up delinquent juveniles is not working, said Teske. “Our recidivist rates for kids committed to the state, within three years, is 65 percent. That’s pathetic. That’s deplorable. This is broken and we have to fix it.”
The state is moving toward a collaborative model of addressing juvenile delinquencies, a model that has seen success in Clayton County and in Rockdale County.
But giving treatment is not going “soft” on kids, said reform advocates. “It’s hard and tough and dirty work to turn kids around,” said Teske.
Juveniles are still in such fluctuating development in their brains and decision making capabilities that they need to be treated differently than adults, said advocates.
Teske put it bluntly, “Kids are neurologically wired to do stupid things. I dare to ask any adult when you were a kid, did you ever commit a single delinquent act? Invariably, almost everyone raises their hand.”
Work on the proposed changes began eight years ago and a version was introduced to the Legislature last year but shelved to refine the overhaul for delinquency laws. Teske was appointed by Governor Nathan Deal to the commission that recommended changes to the juvenile justice code for delinquencies.
One of the aims of the commission was to find more resources and options for juvenile court judges without raising taxes, Teske said.
To do that, the recommendations sought to reduce the number of youths sent to the state to be incarcerated and to keep them in the community instead in local treatment programs.
“It costs about $90,000 a year to house a kid in a youth detention facility,” said Teske. “To keep them in the community and treat them, you’re talking $18,000.”
Among the proposed changes for delinquencies, a child cannot be incarcerated for a misdemeanor unless they have four prior convictions and one of those has to be a Class A felony.
Felonies would be divided into Class A felonies, or more serious crimes involving bodily harm or danger that can carry a sentence of up to five years incarceration, and Class B felonies that can carry a sentence up to 18 months incarceration.
A class of charges that only juveniles can acquire for things such as unruliness or running away from home will be eliminated and replaced with a designation called “Child in Need of Services.”
Prosecutors will have the option not to prosecute cases under the proposed changes, said Teske.
For deprivation, neglect and abuse cases, there is more proposed representation solely for the child.
“A court can’t accept an admission from a juvenile until it’s been shown they’ve consulted an attorney” under the proposed laws, said Schneider.
John Martin, a local attorney who represented DFCS in local juvenile courts for nearly two decades, said including the voice of the child is necessary to get a fuller picture of the case.
However, a child’s wishes need to be considered in context. In his experience, children in deprivation cases will almost always say they want to return home, even if that may not be in their best interest.
“Kids don’t always make the best decisions,” he said. “You have to walk a line between what that child wants and what’s in the best interest of the child.”
Local costs and programs
Rockdale Juvenile Court averages about 2,300 cases a year, said Rockdale Juvenile Court Judge William Schneider, including delinquencies, deprivation, juvenile drug court, traffic cases and other cases.
Though the proposed overhaul is estimated to save the state up to $88 million over five years, there is concern the costs for local jurisdictions will go up as more attorney representation and more community-based programs will be needed.
“This county is going to get hit hard with juvenile court expenses,” said Schneider. “I can safely assume our budget line for professional services is going to triple.”
The budget for Rockdale Juvenile Court in 2013 is about $609,000 with $32,500 for professional services, which was less than the previous year. In 2012, the budget for Juvenile Court was about $621,000 with $35,000 for professional services.
Some of the money saved from not having to pay for as many beds in the youth detention centers will be rerouted to local jurisdictions. To jump start the process, Gov. Deal set aside $5 million for which counties can apply.
Rockdale County is already leading the trend in Georgia as far as juvenile justice programs. Rockdale is only one of two counties in the state that are part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative.
Rockdale is also ahead of most counties by establishing the Evening Reporting Center in 2005. The ERC provides academic assistance and enrichment programs from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. It was initially opened as a place children could go while awaiting trial but grew into a treatment program the court could sentence to children instead of locking them up in youth detention centers. Currently, it serves about 10 children a month and is funded with a combination of grants and donations from the community.
Judge Schneider said with some of the funds that would come from the state’s savings, he would like to see the ERC opened during the day time. The facility could also be used as a weekend sanction center for children who get in trouble with the law over the weekend.
However, the money saved would be redirected to delinquency related treatment programs. But many of the increases costs would come with deprivation cases, which the counties would shoulder.
Currently, there is one prosecutor from the District Attorney’s office and one defense attorney from the public defender’s office assigned to handle juvenile court cases.
HB 242 was unanimously approved in the state House of Representatives in February and will be up for a vote by the state Senate. A Senate committee recently approved slight changes, including moving the effective date out to Jan. 1, instead of July 1.
To see a copy of HB 242, go to http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/20132014/134662.pdf or go to legis.ga.gov and look up “HB 242.”