Under a new law signed Thursday, Georgia will stop locking up most young offenders. Instead, they will be directed into community-based rehabilitative programs meant to address underlying problems.
After January 1, young people arrested for minor offenses will enter social service programs, skipping the criminal justice system entirely. Those arrested for low-level crimes like drug possession will be diverted into community-based rehab programs. Teenagers who have committed felonies in which no one is hurt will face a maximum of 18 months in prison plus intensive probation for a year and a half. If someone is harmed, the juveniles could be sent to prison for up to 5 years.
The youth law is expected to save $85 million over five years and reduce the juvenile prison population by 640 teenagers, at a rate of $91,000 a year per bed. Currently, there are 1,820 minors in juvenile facilities in Georgia. The youth recidivism rate, now at 65 percent, is also supposed to drop.
Georgia’s school to prison pipeline is among the worst in the nation, with schools frequently using the criminal justice system to discipline kids for minor infractions. A juvenile court judge from Georgia testified last year that one-third of the cases before him were school-related minor offenders who had been arrested by campus police. He also noted an “appalling” racial disparity in the arrests, which were 80 percent African American. As arrests increase, high school graduation rates have plummeted.
The youth law follows another prison reform last year that diverted adults arrested for minor offenses from prison. The adult law establishes alternative program options for people arrested for non-violent crimes. As of July 1, judges will be given more discretion over drug-related cases, which often have mandatory minimum prison sentences. Instead, expensive prison beds will be reserved for the most violent criminals, while less serious offenses like drug possession, burglary, forgery, or shoplifting will have less severe penalties depending on the scale of the crime.
Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has made a more humane and effective prison system a top priority. At the bill signing, Deal choked up as he described how families have “been cast aside by the system that was in place.” Now that he has signed these two cornerstone bills into law, the governor is already working with community groups on legislation to smooth the transition of inmates back into society and reduce recidivism rates. He has also pledged $10 million in funding for “accountability courts” to make sure defendants work, seek treatment and stay sober.
Sentencing reform has attracted rare bipartisan support all over the country, as conservatives look for ways to cut costs while liberals oppose excessively harsh and ineffective sentencing. In the past two years, 35 prisons have shuttered in 15 states. However, other states have embraced the private prison industry, which has an abysmal record for security and inmate abuse, and may actually increase incarceration rates.