From Rhonda Cook at the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Originally published May 2, 2013

DALTON —With a swipe of his pen, Gov. Nathan Deal set in motion another phase of the effort to make criminal justice in Georgia less costly and more effective – this one focused on youthful offenders.

Deal signed House Bill 242, adding Georgia to the list of states making sweeping changes aimed at slowing the ballooning costs of incarceration while also steering petty offenders away from a life of crime.

Under the measure Georgia will lock up fewer juvenile offenders and send those accused of less serious crimes to community-based programs. It also will seek to address the root causes of minor offenses such as truancy, running away or being unruly.

The Legislature passed a similar bill dealing with adult offenders. Both measures enjoyed broad support, with fiscal conservatives worried about soaring costs allied with criminal justice reformers who think stringent sentencing hasn’t worked. And both had Deal’s backing.

“I knew the state could not continue on the path it was traveling in locking up people, throwing away the key and hoping for the best,” Deal said Thursday before the bill-signing at the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center at Dalton.

He said the reforms in both the adult and juvenile systems are “the right thing to do. We think it will produce results we all want.”

Once the youth law takes effect Jan. 1, so-called “status offenders” arrested for minor offenses won’t go into the criminal justice system at all. Instead they will be sent to social services programs equipped to address the underlying reasons for their trouble, often found in their home lives. Teenagers accused of misdemeanors and low-level crimes like drug possession will not be sentenced to a juvenile prison. Instead they will be diverted to community-based programs.

Those who commit designated felonies will be separated into two categories. Crimes in which no one is hurt will mean no more than 18 months locked up plus another 1 1/2 years of intensive probation. Designated felons who harm someone could be locked up for as many as five years.

Other states that have made similar changes say they were able to close facilities because fewer kids were in the criminal justice system, saving taxpayers money.

Continue reading more about the legislation and its fiscal effects by clicking here: