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30 YEARS BOLD


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wednesday, October 7, 1998

REFORM
FOR LESS

The state's
destructive and expensive juvenile justice system is crying out for attention from our elected leaders.


By Rick McDevitt

Do the citizens of Georgia want to be safe and protected from all sorts of crime? An easy question for us and for policy-makers.

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.



The 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.


The 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.

We should make every politician running for state office take a position on cleaning up this mess.

The 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.

If 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.

How 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.

Rick McDevitt is president of Georgia Affiance for Children, based in Atlanta.



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