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Making progress in juvenile crime
Hill Jack
Sen. Jack Hill

On the back of a successful effort to revamp the state’s criminal justice system in 2012, the state took a similar approach in the 2013 legislative session to reform its juvenile justice system.

With HB 242, the state tried to improve the rate of juveniles who do not return to the system, and successfully reintegrate into society. The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians found that despite spending over $300 million on the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), over 50 percent of juveniles were repeatedly delinquent or convicted of crimes.

One of the key problems identified by the council was the presence of low-risk and misdemeanor offenders in out-of-home facilities. With HB 242, Georgia took steps to address recidivism issues with its juvenile offenders, as well as creating the possibility for budgetary savings down the line. Over the next two columns, we will take a look at the juvenile justice system in Georgia, as well as the reforms enacted by HB 242.

The adjudication process
In Georgia, the juvenile justice system is operated in cooperation through juvenile courts and the Department of Juvenile Justice. All of Georgia’s 159 counties have a juvenile court, whose judges are chosen by the circuit’s superior court judges. Youth who are charged with felonies, misdemeanors, and status offenses fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court (some juveniles can be tried in superior court for particularly egregious crimes, such as murder).

Under current law, the prosecuting attorney is required to represent the state in delinquency cases, and youth now have many of the same rights as adults facing criminal charges.  Adjudication cases are heard by juvenile court judges with no jury, and it is the state’s burden to prove delinquency beyond a reasonable doubt. If a youth is adjudicated as delinquent, the court hears evidence on whether the youth is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision and files its findings in a disposition.

Department of Juvenile Justice
In Georgia, the Department of Juvenile Justice is the agency tasked with the care and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. When juveniles are adjudicated as delinquent, DJJ has three out-of-home placement options — regional youth detention centers (RYDC), youth development campuses (YDC), and non-secure residential facilities (providers that contract with DJJ). DJJ also operates probation services, as well as community-based placements.

RYDCs house both juveniles waiting for court action as well as youth who have been committed, but are awaiting placement in a YDC, or a placement in a DJJ-contracted facility. YDCs are the most restrictive facilities operated by DJJ and include youth who have been committed for two years, designated felons, as well as youth convicted in superior court until they are old enough to be transferred to the Department of Corrections.

DJJ operates six YDCs (there is one private YDC), and 18 RYDCs (the state also has a contract for one privately-operated facility). The budget for DJJ is dominated by the costs of operating these facilities. In the fiscal year 2015 general budget, DJJ was appropriated $306,981,411, of which $200,002,771 (65 percent) is dedicated to RYDCs and YDCs.

Despite being the department’s main cost drivers, YDCs and RYDCs were not producing better results. Similar to findings among adult prisoners in state prisons, youth housed in YDCs were found to have higher recidivism rates. The Special Council’s report found that 65 percent of youth sent to YDCs were convicted of another crime within three years, compared to 53 percent for all other adjudicated youth.

Detention and high recidivism
Across the country, states are realizing that placing low-risk and misdemeanor offenders in secure facilities, whether they be juveniles or adults, has an adverse effect on that offender’s chance of recidivating. While the number of misdemeanor and status offenders in out-of-home placement has decreased, the report still found that this type of offender, often deemed low-risk, made up 25 percent of all out-of-home placements.

The Special Council’s report also found that in 2011, 39 percent of designated felons serving time in YDCs were classified as low-risk offenders. Despite the fact that the amount of youth in the juvenile justice system is declining, not only in Georgia, but across the country, recidivism rates in Georgia have remained stable.

The state spends over $300 million on DJJ, but HB 242 helped make additional strides to give youth the best chance to succeed, and become successful members of society. The Special Council’s full report and recommendations can be found at

Next: HB 242 and the changes it brought

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