This post also appears on the blog of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein declared the state is at a “crossroads in juvenile justice history” and challenged the General Assembly to expand mental health services for “clearly disturbed youngsters” during her final State of the Judiciary address, telling lawmakers, “We wait for the explosion and it will come” unless courts have more resources for dealing with juveniles who are clearly at risk to themselves and others.

Hunstein delivered her final State of the Judiciary Address to the General Assembly Thursday morning in Atlanta.  Her term as Chief Justice expires later this year.  Hunstein devoted a major section of her remarks to adult and juvenile justice system reforms.  Legislators enacted the start of adult reforms in 2012; this year they will consider a large juvenile justice system bill.

“What does a judge do with a chronic runaway girl who comes before him with untreated mental health problems and a history of being sexually exploited while living on the streets?  What does a judge do with the boy who repeatedly is charged with shoplifting but whose family is seriously dysfunctional?” Hunstein told lawmakers.

“Most juvenile judges say they do not want to send these children to locked facilities, but with no community resources and fearing for the children’s safety, they feel they have no alternative.  As one juvenile judge recently wrote, without resources at home, detention becomes a default when the hammer is the only tool in the toolbox.”

Chief Justice Hunstein opened her 27-minute address with a summary of adult reforms that are underway based on recommendations made in 2011 by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  Diversion of non-violent offenders away from costly prison beds into alternative programs has enabled the state to slow the growth of its prison population.  Hunstein said the state is “on track to save $264 million in five years.”  Fewer state inmates are being held in county jails.  Twelve new drug and mental health courts opened last along with several substance abuse and mental health treatment centers.

The Chief Justice also emphasized “the beginning of a new way of handling long-term inmates who have served many years – sometimes decades – in prison.  The fact is that 95 percent of this state’s 57,000 prison inmates will eventually walk out of prison; only 5 percent will die there.”  Last month state Pardons and Paroles began to assign “max-out” inmates to residential transition centers six months before their final release date.

“But the best measure of success is counted in the many individual lives that are being changed daily as a result of these accountability courts,” Hunstein said.  She added, “I have been honored to receive personal letters from a number of the graduates.  One graduate wrote: ‘On October 31, I went to court and regained full custody of my 6-year-old son, Nicholas.  It was the happiest day of my life other than the day he was born.  I am so grateful for the opportunity of giving back when I, for so long, took away.”

The General Assembly is waiting to see legislation that would dramatically realign the state’s juvenile justice system, completely rethink the antiquated juvenile civil code and, expected in a separate bill, put a few new tools into adult system reforms from last year.

“Today, we as Georgians – and as a nation – stand at a crossroads in juvenile justice history,” Hunstein told Senate and House members.  “We have learned just as we did with adult criminal justice that cracking down on juvenile crime is not enough.  We also must be smart about juvenile crime and take action to reduce it.”

Hunstein said based on average daily population, 2,000 youths are detained in youth long-term detention centers that are the equivalent of adult prisons, youth short-term detention centers or residential programs such as group homes.  The Chief Justice said more than half committed non-violent offenses, 40 percent are considered low-risk and one-quarter were adjudicated for a misdemeanor or status offense that would not be a crime if committed by an adult.

The state spends $91,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile in youth prison, vastly more than $19,000 spent per year to incarcerate an adult.  Hunstein said, “The difference in cost is based on young people’s educational and other needs that must be met under state and federal laws.

“But consider the return we get on every dollar spent housing these juveniles:  Of the 619 children in our youth prisons, nearly 65 percent will commit another offense within three years of getting out – and nearly every one of them will get out.

“We know one thing for certain:  Spending $91,000 a year to lock up a juvenile and getting 65 percent recidivism is not working,” Hunstein said.  “We can be smarter with taxpayer dollars.  More importantly, we can produce a safer Georgia.”

Juvenile justice reform legislation is expected to emphasize expansion of community treatment options when incarceration is not required and would not benefit a juvenile. Governor Nathan Deal included a $5 million line item in next year’s budget to help jump start these programs.

Presiding Justice Hugh Thompson will succeed Hunstein as Chief Justice later this year.