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Georgia Council Says State Could Save Tens of Millions By Lowering Juvenile Detention Population

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians recently released a report claiming that the state could save an estimated $88 million by reducing the number of young people held in secure facilities over the next five years.

The authors of the report recommend decreasing the state’s total out-of-home adjudicated population by more than a quarter by 2018, stating that the measure would allow “significant opportunities for savings and reallocation of resources.”

The report states that status offenders should not be subjected to either short-term or long-term detention, while young people accused of misdemeanors would be better served by diversions to community-based programs. Combined, status offenders and youth found guilty of misdemeanors represented more than a quarter of Georgia’s juvenile lock-up population in 2011.

Currently, almost 30 crimes are considered “designated felonies” in the state of Georgia, including several property offenses, such as smash and grab burglaries. Last year, however, almost two-fifths of the designated felons in the state’s youth developmental campuses (YDC) were assessed as “low-risk,” while approximately 40 percent of young people in Georgia YDCs in 2011 were detained for committing non-violent offenses.

The report suggest revising the state’s Designated Felony Act (DFA) to establish a two-class system that “continues to allow for restrictive custody in all designated felony (DF) cases while adjusting the dispositional sanctions to take into account both offense severity and risk level.”

Prior to entering state custody, the council suggests that young people be assessed for their likelihood of committing future crimes and given mental health screenings. They also believe that the state should refocus resources on evidence-based practices, as Georgia has yet to establish specified performance outcome measures to gauge the effectiveness of agency practices.

From 2002 to 2011, the state’s total out-of-home adjudicated juvenile population dropped from 2,973 to 1,917, with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stating that arrests of youth 16 and under dropped by nearly a quarter from 2008 to 2011. However, an estimated 65 percent of young people released from YDCs in Georgia either return to the juvenile justice system or become convicted as adults within three years, the report states.

According to the report, Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice allocated almost two-thirds of its $300 million-plus budget to operate the state’s juvenile detention facilities for the 2013 FY, with just one YDC bed tabulated to cost $91,126 annually.

“Despite a recent decline in the number of youth in the juvenile justice system, the cost to Georgia taxpayers remains substantial and the state has not received a sufficient return on its investment,” the report reads. “The policy recommendations will further focus the state’s use of expensive out-of-home facilities on serious, higher-risk youth. By doing this, the state will generate savings that can be used to increase the availability and effectiveness of community-based options.

Did Georgia Meet Sex Offender Registry Deadline? Thousands of Federal Dollars Could Be At Stake

It remains a mystery whether Georgia met a critical deadline this week to comply with a federal ruling known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

“We can’t say for sure at this point, we have packets arriving in droves,” said United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Spokeswoman Kara McCarthy. “It may take up to three months for us to go through all of the packets we have received.”

Wednesday was the deadline for the peach state and more than 30 others to implement the federal mandate that requires states to establish a sex offender registry for adults and juveniles that connects with a national registry.

“To date, 14 states, nine tribes and one territory have substantially implemented Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) requirements,” said Linda Baldwin, Director of DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) Office, which administers SORNA. “We are reviewing as quickly as possible the materials submitted.”

DOJ has confirmed that Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming have substantially implemented SORNA, along with nine native American tribes and the U.S. territory of Guam.

States, tribes and territories that did not meet DOJ’s deadline this week will be denied different amounts of government funding for the year. The Walsh Act specifies that those that failed to substantially implement SORNA by the deadline would be subject to a 10 percent reduction in the amount awarded to the jurisdiction under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. Jurisdictions often use these formula grants to improve state and local criminal justice programs with an emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders. The Act also permits states and territories to potentially recoup the 10 percent reduction in a future fiscal year if it is demonstrated that these funds will be used to implement SORNA programs. Sources tell JJIE.org that $750,000, or 10 percent of the estimated $7.5 million of the JAG money allotted to Georgia this fiscal year could be at stake.

Sources with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) and Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have declined comment on the matter, with the latter deferring to a response from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. “We’re awaiting a response from the governor’s office, DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore said. “We can’t comment until we hear back from them.”

CJCC Executive Director Barbara Lynn Howell did not immediately reply to requests for interviews, but indicated earlier this week by telephone that state officials had been assessing the cost of implementing the registry system versus the potential penalties faced for compliance failure. Sources close to JJIE.org have confirmed that the price tag for implementing the system could cost more than the revenue lost.

Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ) Staff Attorney Ann Kirkhope said in late 2007 or early 2008, shortly after the federal law was passed, a task force was assembled in Georgia to study the issue. The group, comprised of the Council, along with the GBI, Georgia Sheriff's Council and other stakeholder groups, met 10 to 15 times, she said, to discuss how the statute could be carried out in the state.

"We discussed the advantages and disadvantages to being in compliance," she said. "There was so much to consider; the infrastructure had to be in place. We knew there would be a lot of changes from what we currently do [in reference to sex offenders in Georgia]. We discussed what personnel would be needed, what technology and equipment would have to be in place to make the systems in all the different counties compatible. We knew that Byrne Grant money would be at stake but that it could cost way more to implement the SORNA requirements."

Kirkhope said the group eventually disbanded after it reached a point where the work of the task force was only viable if the "powers-that-be decided Georgia needed to be in compliance," she said. "That was not a decision that we could make. Only the governor's office can do that."

Even if Georgia chose to submit an application for compliance in time for the recent July deadline,  she said, sex offender guideline changes would have to be drafted into a bill and approved by the state legislature to become law.

"It still has to go through the legislative process," she said.

Also at issue with Walsh Act enforcement are concerns about whether juveniles should be required to be on a registry list at all. In fact, a document published as part of DOJ’s testimony in a hearing on the Walsh Act indicated that several states cited “juvenile requirements” as a barrier to complying with the Act.

SORNA sets minimum requirements for who to include on the registry and how long to include them. SORNA mandates that certain juvenile sex offenders be included, although a supplemental guideline issued by DOJ permits states to keep juvenile registrants on a non-public list.

Supporters of the sex offender registry legislation argue that non-compliance allows "dangerous" sex offenders to find the gaps and move around accordingly. Critics, however, believe that the danger in non-compliant jurisdictions is exaggerated. During an interview for an unrelated article earlier this week former DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt affirmed that he believes both sides have strong arguments.

“I’m not sure the stance that the governor and DJJ are taking on that, so I prefer not to comment on that in particular,” he said. “But, I will say with sex offenders you have got to be very careful. You don’t want to stain somebody for life, so I think it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, public safety is a great issue. If it’s determined that [a juvenile be listed on a registry] is what’s best for public safety, that has to be a priority.”

Kirkhope said the juvenile issue came up during the task force meetings.

"There was plenty of discussion on that; not just in our state," she said. "When we read the comments from other states, a number of organizations and agencies were speaking out about juvenile names being on a registry. Many of the states that immediately complied with the Walsh Act already had similar systems where juveniles are listed for certain higher level offenses. Ohio is one of those states."

This July deadline was the third in the slow move toward Walsh Act compliance. All states were granted a blanket extension by Attorney General Eric Holder in July of 2009. States were allowed to ask individually for extensions in 2010, and all but the initial four compliant states received one. JJIE.org will continue to update you as our request for interviews and requests are met.

Crossover Day Update

Crossover Day – the second longest work day on the Georgia General Assembly calendar – has wrapped up leaving some key juvenile justice and child-focused bills dead for the 2011 session.

SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children, are among the measures that didn’t meet the crucial deadline. VIEW SOME OF THE KEY JUVENILE JUSTICE AND CHILD-FOCUSED LEGISLATION.

“It had not made it out of [the] Rules [Committee] in time and that’s very disappointing,” says HB 185 sponsor Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold). “It looked like it was going to progress.”

HB 265, which supports Governor Nathan Deal’s recent effort to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee, was overwhelmingly approved by the House, 169-1. Governor Deal has told JJIE.org that he hopes juvenile justice will be a part of that review due out next year.

SB 80, which would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to submit a DNA sample for analysis in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation database, did make it in time. The grueling 11-hour workday included its passage in the Senate. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor, the measure would help solidify convictions on felony charges and identify suspects in other crimes. Twenty-four states and the federal government have similar programs in place. Supporters, including sponsor Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), tout it as an effective way to close cold cases and free people wrongly convicted of crimes.

A House vote on Sunday liquor sales, meantime, is stirring up debate about underage drinking. Religious conservatives on the Republican side joined some black Democrats in opposing SB 10 in a 32-22 vote. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is among the vocal opponents of the measure now headed to the House.

“Young people drink on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, so this is going to increase underage drinking,” says Sen. Fort, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “There are going to be more [car] crashes due to this.”

Sen. Fort says supporters should consider the many unintended consequences. “This will contribute to more violence against women and children; that’s why I voted against it,” he says.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) disagrees with his fellow Black Caucus member. “This bill is about local control; empowering people to make choices in their community,” he says. “If their local jurisdiction puts it on ballot they will have the opportunity to vote on it; if their jurisdiction doesn’t then they won’t. This is not about promoting underage drinking. Creating a choice is what we passed today.”

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) says assertions that SB 10 will contribute to more minors drinking are “absurd.”  He too contends the measure is about choice.

“Right now there are those who choose to drive to a bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on Sundays and consume alcohol and can drink to their heart’s content; this is about giving the very same right to their counterpart who wants to drive pass that same bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on a Sunday and instead buy some alcohol from a package store and consume it at home. ”

Sen. Fort

Cobb Alcohol Taskforce spokeswoman Alisa Bennett-Hart shares Sen. Fort’s concerns.

“The trends do support that young people drink more on weekends, so adding an extra day of access to it definitely will have an impact,” she says. “If adults did not provide alcohol to them, this would not be a problem.”

Bennett-Hart say the non-profit, which combats underage drinking in Cobb County primarily by targeting the actions of adults, is not a “prohibitionist group” opposed to all alcohol consumption.

“We believe it is the right and privilege of anyone over the age of 21,” she says. “We have a problem with adults who provide alcohol to underage children who do not have the right and privilege to consume alcohol.”

Rep. Mitchell says issues, such as the ones raised by Bennett-Hart are better addressed in other ways. “We have laws in place for that,” he says.

Sen. Jones echoes a similar sentiment. He says it is unfair to place so many concerns on one bill. “This doesn’t address underage drinking, alcoholism or kids being able to buy alcohol,” he says. “Those are issues that still impact and affect our community. We are the ones who have to protect our kids from that. We have to ensure that businesses are not selling alcohol to underage kids. Those laws are already on the books and should be enforced.”

Bennett-Hart predicts that “adding another day” of alcohol sales will be problematic for already overextended agencies charged with cracking down on underage drinking and sales. The Taskforce, she says, will be using next month’s “Alcohol Awareness Month” designation to educate Cobb County leaders and residents about the organization’s concerns.

Going up against the powerful alcohol lobby ultimately will be an uphill battle, Sen. Fort predicts.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he says if and when the measure ever goes before voters. “These liquor folks are going to put a lot of money into a referendum. The opposition’s not going to have that kind of money to pump into TV commercials and ads like they will.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and People, Essence and Atlanta magazines.

Sexting Laws: Are They Too Tough on Teens?

Two 14-year olds at the exclusive Lovett School in Buckhead are under investigation in a sexting scandal, as lawmakers in Georgia and across the country debate exactly how to punish children for a crime they may not understand.

One child has left  The Lovett School, another is suspended, according to media reports, and the police department’s Child Exploitation Unit is investigating.

What children may not realize is that sending explicit cell phone pictures of themselves or others under the age of 17 is child pornography.  A child could land on the Sex Offender Registry in many states.  Now lawmakers in Georgia and across the country are looking for changes that protect young people, but exempt immature children.

Rep. Cecily Hill (R-Kingland) wants tougher laws in Georgia. She’s sponsoring House Bill 1334, to make it illegal to transmit obscene photos of minors by cell phone.  This comes in the wake of a case in Atlanta, where a teen broke up with his girlfriend by sending her and her family images of his private parts by cell phone.  Hill says the boy was never charged with a crime because current state law fails to include cell phone transmission.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation supports Rep. Hill, but wants leniency for children who engage in sexting without understanding the consequences. Spokesman John Bankhead tells the Morris News Service, “they could be put on a sex-offenders list for the rest of their life.”

More than 25 percent of teens have sent or received sexually explicit photos, according to a national poll conducted by MTV and the Associated Press, and they often do it for fun without realizing what could happen in the future. Young people in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have faced criminal charges.  The Orlando Sentinel tells the story of Phillip Alpert who took revenge on his former girlfriend by calling up naked photos she sent him while they were dating, and emailing them to 70 people, including her grandparents and teachers.  Alpert is now a felon and registered sex offender, who must attend a class with other offenders who have raped and molested children.  The girl was never charged.

Some child advocates look at sexting prosecutions across the country, and believe they are out of control.  Nebraska, Utah and Vermont have reduced penalties for teenagers last year according to the New York Times.  Fourteen more states are considering new laws that would treat minors caught sexting differently from adult pornographers and sexual predators.

In Buckhead, Lovett School officials are not saying much about the sexting investigation, but they are telling parents to talk to their children.