The state's destructive
and expensive juvenile justice system is crying out for
attention from our elected leaders.
By Rick McDevitt
the citizens of Georgia want to be safe and protected
from all sorts of crime? An easy question for us and for
Yet the public refuses to get involved sooner, rather
than later, in the lives of at-risk children. If we really
cared about our-selves and our youth, we would clean up
our horrible juvenile justice system.
Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Sammy Jones did a study
in which he tracked the children who came through his
court and were sent to the state's juvenile Ms. He found
that 98 percent were back in his court within five months
of their release.
It costs more than $40,000 a year to lockup a child in
this state, and they keep coming back. If each of the
state's 159 counties incarcerated two fewer kids a year
and received the savings for local programs, that would
free up nearly $13 million from the state budget for such
programs. If we added savings from lower recidivism rates,
the number could increase 50 percent. This is a way to
spend existing funds effectively.
Recently, the U.S. Justice Department conducted a yearlong
investigation of 14 juvenile jails in Georgia and termed
the conditions "egregious." It found widespread
abuse complete with dungeon-type facilities, beatings
by staff members, 9-'@ear-olds in boot camps, poor or
no education and little or no mental or physical health
care. Not a pretty picture.
Then Gov. Zell Miller complained to the president of the
United States about the report being "leaked"
before he saw it. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno came
into town to let us know that a deal had been made to
fix the problems. Huh? Hold on; let's reflect for a moment.
Georgia Alliance for Children has worked on improving
the state's juvenile justice system for more than 10 years.
Miller and I had a deal in1991. We agreed then to create
a new "Department of Children and Youth," now
called the Department of Juvenile Justice. Miller agreed
that the focus of the department would be to lock up only
the "bad actors" and to provide services to
other youngsters in their own communities - to keep them
from becoming bigger problems as they grew older.
But in a turnabout, he sponsored legislation that would
lock up more kids - not fewer.
After that, a bad system got worse. The cruel conditions
documented by the Justice Department surely didn't develop
overnight, but Miller has taken no responsibility for
this mess. More than 100,000 children and their families
have been subjected to this abusive system during the
past five years or so.
agreement with the- Justice Department can only address
problems in juvenile detention facilities. It can't force
the state to fund prevention, early intervention or after-care
service for Georgia's youth. But the people can.
should make every politician running for state office
take a position on cleaning up this mess.
Georgia Alliance for Children plans to request a meeting
with every candidate to educate them on the issues and
discuss ways we can work together to solve the problems.
Their calls to the alliance are welcome as well.
you think all the juveniles who are locked up need to
be, consider this: The Justice Department report says
the state admitted that 75 percent of its youth detainees
were locked up for property offenses, mostly minor.
There were also a bunch of runaways and kids with attitude
problems. The state can do much better for the ones
who steal sunglasses at Kmart," mouth off' or give
dirty looks - teenagers we can help for much, much less
than$40,000 a year.
much longer can we stand for the waste of the human
potential of our young people or the waste of public
resources? Remember, every abandoned child will come
back to haunt us again and again. Candidates, please
let us hear from you.
McDevitt is president of Georgia Affiance for Children,
based in Atlanta.