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Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 11:23am

Youth Justice Bill Passes House

A bill that child advocates say would revolutionize how Georgia punishes juvenile offenders unanimously passed the state House Thursday. The measure would allow the state to take a more humane approach while also reducing incarceration costs.

Under the bill, judges would have more leeway to reduce punishment for minor offenses. It would also emphasize community-based treatment to allow offenders to stay in school.

It mirrors some of the changes the state has made to the adult prison system.

Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs Republican, is the bill’s sponsor. Speaking from the House floor, he cited the ballooning costs of jailing the state’s youth.

“Currently if we take a child and put him in what we call secure detention, it costs the state $90,000 a year," he said. "You can put a child through the finest college in this country for less than that.”

Willard asked his colleagues to support the bill unanimously.

“Ladies and gentlemen, doing the right thing for our children isn’t a partisan issue," he said.

Polly McKinney, the director of advocacy for the nonprofit Voices for Georgia’s Children, calls the measure a sea change, and says it’s time for Georgia to stop incarcerating children who aren’t a threat to society.

"For a long time, Georgia has locked up the children not only that scare us that we're mad at," she said in an interview. "And we need to stop locking up the kids we're just mad at."

She credited Governor Nathan Deal for getting behind juvenile justice reform, and said she just hopes the bill will pass the state Senate.

“You know we all work down here every day, working on very important legislation," she said. "And in my lifetime, I don’t think I will ever have a chance to work on legislation that is this important, that will change the lives of so many generations of people for years to come.”

Deal has earmarked $5 million in the budget for treatment programs.

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