Georgia’s top judge told lawmakers Thursday that the state’s tough approach to juvenile offenders isn’t paying off. Justice Carol Hunstein, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, said it’s time to apply lessons learned from adult criminal justice reform to youth offenders.
Hunstein said after years of what she called “runaway costs,” changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system begun under Gov. Nathan Deal are bearing fruit.
She said the prison population is leveling off, and fewer offenders are waiting for prison beds. Instead many are graduating from the so-called accountability courts that deal with drug addicts and the mentally ill.
She says through the courts, many are receiving second chances.
Now she says Georgia’s youth deserve the same chances, and not only for humanitarian reasons.
“The research shows that our reliance on incarceration for young people doesn’t reduce their likelihood to re-offend," she told lawmakers. "Indeed it might do just the opposite, exposing low-risk young people to violence and abuse, and putting some on the path to adult criminality.”
Hunstein said there are 2,000 children in youth prison or group homes, and more than half of them committed nonviolent crimes. And housing them comes with a price tag.
“Here’s a staggering number," she said. "It costs this state $91,000 a year to house a child in a youth prison. By comparison, it costs $19,000 to house an adult.”
The difference in cost, she said, owes to the state’s duty to educate them.
She said Georgia has cut funds for youth mental health services, even though community-based treatment is more effective than prison for young offenders.
Gov. Nathan Deal has earmarked $5 million in the budget for such programs. And lawmakers are drafting a bill that would turn some of these approaches into law.