Juvenile Justice Reform is Strong Public Safety and Fiscal Policy

By: Senator Renee Unterman (R – Buford)

Building on the success of the criminal justice system reforms in 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly this year tackled a significant and positive reform of our state’s Juvenile Justice System that will save tax dollars and improve public safety.

Change is needed when a government program costs too much and still produces lousy results. Despite the exorbitant price of more than $91,000 annually to house a youth in a Youth Development Campus, nearly two-thirds of juveniles leaving these facilities reoffend within three years, even though many were nonviolent offenders and considered low risk when they entered. In other words, taxpayers are footing the bill to train better criminals.

In an op-ed last week, a Gwinnett County Juvenile Court judge wrongly asserted that the reforms will not improve public safety and that counties will have to bear the costs of implementation. On the contrary, the new law will better serve local communities. While the judge defends the status quo, the state will take a “smart on crime” approach.

Law enforcement, judges, lawyers and advocates all agree that finite county and state resources force us all to realize an important public safety lesson: We need to distinguish between offenders who scare us and those we are simply mad at. Unfortunately, our current system doesn’t consistently make this distinction. So, despite good intentions, we cycle thousands of lower-level offenders through a revolving door. This doesn’t safeguard our neighborhoods, and it’s a tremendous expense for county and state taxpayers.

To ensure taxpayer dollars make the greatest impact on public safety, the new juvenile justice reform law focuses the state’s out-of-home facilities on higher-risk, serious offenders. The new reforms also use some of the savings, expected to total more than $80 million over five years, to create and strengthen evidence-based community programs for lower-risk youth. This keeps low-risk, nonviolent youth out of a setting where they learn how to become hardened criminals.

We are already seeing the state put its money where its mouth is, even though savings have not been realized yet. Through the efforts of Gov. Deal and the General Assembly, $6 million in new funding were made available to counties through the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant Program.

Twenty-nine local awards serving 49 counties totaled $5.6 million — funding that has never been previously available to juvenile courts to serve children in their communities. In fact, Gwinnett County’s Juvenile Court received an award of $400,000 under this program.

The Juvenile Justice Reform bill, the first major overhaul of our juvenile justice code in decades, passed unanimously through both houses of the General Assembly. These changes enjoy this broad, bipartisan support because they will help Georgia’s nonviolent young offenders re-enter society as productive citizens and allow the state to focus its limited resources on truly dangerous offenders.