A massive bill that would turn everything upside down in Georgia’s juvenile justice system passed its first legislative hurdle Tuesday: a committee vote.
The 244-page bill would cut the number of child offenders housed in detention centers and create community-based programs to address the problems that led the youngster to crime. It’s also expected to save the state tens of millions of dollars per year.
The legislation is a reversal of an approach to get tough on “young thugs” — as Gov. Zell Miller called them — that began in the 1990s, a period when laws were adopted with significant time for all criminals, no matter their ages.
“The way we’re doing things now is not good for the children, so we’re altering those programs,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “It can’t be done overnight, but there will be steps taken incrementally.”
Willard is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which passed House Bill 242 on Tuesday.
About 65 percent of the children who leave Georgia’s juvenile justice system come back or are convicted as adults within three years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Willard wants that to change. He and his many supporters want to see fewer children locked up and instead participate in community-based programs that would address the personal problems that led them to crime.
“We’re looking at making the future of that child better and brighter and not putting them in detention where they would be more likely exposed to things they shouldn’t be exposed to,” he said.
Like savings promised in last year’s fixes to the adult corrections system, the hope is HB 242 will save about $88 million over the next five years. The expectation is that each year 640 children — truants, kids caught drinking, runaways and those accused of misdemeanors — will be sent to community-based programs instead of high-security lockups.
Some of these would be intense probationary programs that would keep children busy and out of trouble, Willard said. A child might go straight from school to one of these programs where counselors and tutors would work with them until it was nearly time for bed.
The most dangerous juveniles would still be placed in youth development campuses, which are akin to prisons for adults.
Read more: AJC