A new study by the Campaign for Youth Justice reports that states across the country are reversing legislation that is pushing 250,000 kids a year into the adult justice system.
Following a spike in juvenile crime in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many states began lowering the age that children could be prosecuted as an adult. According to the study, incarcerating youth in adult prisons, “puts them at higher risk of abuse, injury, and death while they are in the system, and makes it more likely that they will reoffend once they get out.”
Fifteen states have already completed the changes necessary to put fewer kids in adult prisons and nine more have legislation in the works. Georgia (along with Colorado, Texas and Washington) has updated its mandatory minimum sentencing laws for juveniles.
However, Georgia is still holding on to a law that automatically transfers children aged 13 and older who commit one of the “seven deadly sins” to adult court. Offenses include murder, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery, voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery with a firearm.
Legislation passed nearly 20 years ago mandating that some children be prosecuted as adults and locked up for years is getting a fresh look from members of the general assembly and possibly the governor.
JJIE.org has confirmed that in a recent meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, new Governor Nathan Deal stated that he is willing to reassess Senate Bills 440 and 441. The development comes on the heels of prison overcrowding concerns Governor Deal, a former juvenile court judge, expressed last month during his first state-of –the-state address.
“The governor has indicated that he is open to discussions about this; the speaker of the house (David Ralston) said the same when we met with him a few days later,” says Georgia State Senator Emanuel Jones (D-10) “Texas and Alabama are taking the lead on reforming these laws. These laws were passed during a time 15 to 16 years ago when both parties were trying to ‘out tough’ each other on crime. Now the cost of lock ‘em up and throw away the key legislation has become a financial burden on the state.”
Governor Deal’s Press Secretary Stephanie Mayfield would not confirm his position on SB 440 and SB 441, calling juvenile justice system reform “a very broad topic” but “one of great importance.” However, in a written statement to JJIE.org, Mayfield said any impending bills proposing changes to SB 440 and SB 441, “need to first complete the legislative process in order for Gov. Deal to evaluate them in their full form. Gov. Deal recently had a good and productive meeting with members of the Black Caucus and they shared many of the same concerns. He looks forward to working with the members as they move forward on these significant issues.”
Caucus member Sen. Vincent Fort, (D-39) did not attend the Jan. 25 meeting, but he says he’s not surprised by Governor Deal’s remarks in light of the state's recession-driven budget shortfall estimated at $1.5 billion.
“What’s happened is the conservative law and order hawks are coming to understand that lock em’ up and throw away the key is not a productive approach,” says Sen. Fort of the "two strikes and you're out" laws popularized in the 1990s. “So what you have now are conservatives looking at these changes for fiscal reasons and liberals like me looking at these changes from an equal justice standpoint.”
One out of 31 Americans are under some form of correctional control. The number jumps to one out of every 13 in Georgia and one out of nine for African-Americans in the state.
Passed in 1994, SB 440 requires children between the ages of 13 and 17 to be prosecuted as adults when accused of committing one of the "seven deadly sins" in Georgia, including murder, rape, armed robbery (with a firearm), aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and voluntary manslaughter.
Once convicted in Superior Court under SB 440, SB 441 imposes a minimum 10-year sentence without the possibility of parole. In some circumstances juveniles may end up serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Those children serve their sentences in adult prisons.
Jones says the changes being discussed would leave that decision up to juvenile court judges. More sentencing discretion, he says, would be a win-win for both ends of the political spectrum.
“It costs $57 a day to incarcerate individuals; it’s $237 for juveniles,” says Jones. “That’s more than $70,000 per year, per child. The governor is looking at ways to trim the budget and changes to 440 and 441 would go a long way.”
Any legislation aimed at cutting the number of children incarcerated by Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) – currently about 20,000 – could potentially save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
State Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-88), who also attended the caucus meeting with the governor, says he too supports major penal system reform.
“We need to spend less money on incarceration and more on prevention and treatment so we won’t be warehousing so many people in our prisons,” says Sen. Mitchell, the minority chief deputy whip. “I agree with the governor that our efforts to appear tough on crime have created a system that is so expensive.”
Sen. Jones says during the caucus meeting, Governor Deal also indicated that he is open to the idea of instituting a juvenile court parole board in Georgia. He has been working closely with newly appointed DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell on drafting a 23-page bill proposing the idea. The legislation could be introduced as early as this week.
“The way the law is written, a criteria would be developed to determine which juveniles would be considered for parole,” he says. “DJJ would empower the panel or board to make that decision.”
In her first official interview as commissioner, Howell told JJIE.org that the measure would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have accomplished the terms of their sentence – everything from completing a General Equivalency Diploma to maintaining the highest behavioral status in the juvenile detention facility. DJJ would provide that information and allow a judge to make a final determination.
Major policy changes like this one are necessary, she says, for DJJ to fulfill its mission amid the agency’s recent wave of massive budget cuts.
“We want to give the discretion back to judges,” she says. “That’s a door that has been closed for quite some time.”
Sen. Jones says details would have to be worked out, but helping children become productive members of society is at the heart of the bill.
For now, though, he’s optimistic that the changes may happen for Georgia.
“I’ve been in this [governing] body for six years now and not one moment before now had I ever considered that such legislation would ever make it out of committee,” he says. “Because the governor uttered those words in his state-of-the-state, it makes it possible. We now have this opportunity due to shrinking assets. I’m encouraged by some of the things that I’ve been hearing.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.