ATLANTA — Georgia legislators split the difference when they toughened juvenile justice laws in 1994. They stiffened sentences for the most violent crimes, sending some teens to adult prisons. But lawmakers also gave courts discretion to keep some of the serious offenders in the state’s juvenile facilities.
Two decades later, though, a new data analysis shows Georgia's juvenile system has turned out just as high a percentage of repeat offenders as its adult prisons. Whether teens spent time in youth detention centers or adult lock-ups for targeted violent crimes, the analysis found, their felony recidivism rates have been virtually identical.
The findings come as Georgia policy-makers debate proposed reforms intended to rehabilitate non-violent juveniles in their communities rather than in state detention. The move would free up costly bed space so that violent teens could remain behind bars — prisoners, some say, of a system that remains ill-equipped to help them straighten out their lives.
Some Georgia law-enforcement leaders believe violent juveniles should be locked up and off the streets, at least for a while. “The best way I can tell you to protect the public is to take [violent youths] out of society,” says Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.
McDade, a key member of a state panel studying juvenile justice reform in Georgia, says he doesn’t oppose rehabilitation programs for violent offenders. But scarce public resources must be spent first, he said, on other young offenders who are more likely to mend their ways.
Other observers contend Georgia cannot continue to lock up violent youths in the hope that they’ll turn over a new leaf upon release.
"Do we believe that we can change people when they're younger so they don't commit further crimes?” said Tom Rawlings, the state’s child advocate under ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue. “If that is the belief, then we have to start acting like it.”
Otherwise, Rawlings said, "we're essentially spending a ton of money locking up offenders in expensive hotels and then, at the end of their stay, telling them, 'We'll leave the light on for you.'"
In 1994, as part of the School Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform Act, Georgia legislators created dual tracks for youths 13 to 16 years old who were charged with one of the the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: murder, armed robbery with a firearm, rape, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated sodomy and aggravated child molestation. Adult courts would assume exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute and sentence those offenders. Prosecutors, before indictment, could transfer them to Juvenile Court, where they would face a maximum sentence of five years (up from 18 months in the previous law.)
Critics feared the get-tough tactics would misfire, fostering a new class of career criminals by locking up salvageable youths side-by-side with hardened offenders in adult prisons. "You are creating an animal," Rep. Denmark Groover (D-Macon) warned colleagues at the time.
More than half of all such cases were returned to juvenile authorities under SB440, as the 1994 law is still known, according to the analysis, a joint project of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Youth Today and the Center for Public Integrity. In general, that's because court officials believed those offenders’ cases were less severe and the juvenile system theoretically promised them a better chance of turning their lives around.
But that has not turned out to be the case. Overall, about one in four youths confined for an SB440 crime committed another felony within three years of release, according to the analysis. The rate was 24.6 percent for offenders leaving a youth facility and 24.7 percent for those released from an adult prison.
Just as alarming, recidivism for offenders leaving juvenile detention for lesser crimes — a rate that the state calculates more broadly — is even higher.
"The DJJ recidivism rates are terrible, and clearly suggest we are doing something wrong — both wasting taxpayers' money and helping neither the young offender nor protecting the public," state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) said.
Behind the numbers
The JJIE analysis looked at the post-release records of 625 youths who served time between 1994 and 2008 for armed robbery, aggravated sex crimes or other SB440 offenses. Recidivists were defined as those offenders who, within three years of release, committed another felony for which they were subsequently convicted.
Armed robbers, the most common SB440 offenders, were substantially more likely to reoffend if they were transferred to Georgia's juvenile system, the analysis found. The recidivism rate was 44 percent for armed robbers released from juvenile detention and 31 percent for those leaving an adult prison.
Age may explain why recidivism was not lower for the juvenile system than for adult prisons. Statistics show juveniles' crime rate increases steadily as they get older, peaking at 18 or 19 and then declining precipitously as they become adults and mature in their 20s. SB440 offenders serve longer sentences in adult prisons — often a 10-year minimum — but no more than five years in the juvenile system. On average, the analysis found SB440 offenders were 24 on release from an adult prison but just 15 when leaving a juvenile facility.
Despite the age differences, there may be another reason why the juvenile system’s recidivism rates weren’t lower, said Rawlings, the former child advocate who is a longtime critic of SB440. Detention in either an adult or youth prison, he said, won't guarantee rehabilitation if a juvenile offender returns to the same environment and peer group upon release.
"The question should be: What can you do for these children to give them a fresh start?" said Rawlings, a former juvenile court judge. "You can't just say we're going to lock them up and they're going to learn a lesson."
Juvenile justice expert Jeffrey Butts said he's not surprised that JJIE's analysis found the similar recidivism rates. "It's a finding I would predict in all states," he said.
In part, that's because society holds a false expectation about juvenile lockups, "a fantasy that incarceration is treatment," said Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "We lock them up and then we convince ourselves it's good for the kids too."
Some prison rehabilitation programs can be effective, Butts said, but "there's nothing inherent about locking someone up and controlling their movement that is rehabilitative." In fact, recent research shows that imprisonment longer than six months has no effect on whether a juvenile commits another crime later on.
Butts also cautioned against reading too much into recidivism comparisons without knowing why young offenders were prosecuted in one system or the other.
"Without context, it doesn't mean anything," he said.
The Georgia Legislature is now considering recommendations of a juvenile justice task force to move most non-violent juvenile offenders out of secure detention into programs based in their communities — potentially saving the state $70,000 a year or more for each youth.
The panel hasn't talked much about sentencing alternatives for SB440 offenders. But task force co-chairman Michael Boggs, an appellate court judge and former Republican legislator, said he's open to exploring "evidence-based" alternatives that other states have found effective.
Georgia's recidivism rates show clearly that rehabilitation efforts in youth prisons have been ineffective, Boggs said. "We know 'Scared Straight' doesn't work," he said. "We know boot camps don't work."
The trick would be overcoming lawmakers' fears that they'd be labeled "soft on crime" if they vote to return violent juvenile offenders [to their communities for treatment.
Proponents of alternative sentencing also must challenge the notion that violent offenders are beyond help "so the only goal should be to protect the public — meaning lock him up with no attempts at rehabilitation," Rep. Oliver, a member of the task force, said.
Perhaps the bigger obstacle is a lack of commitment to spend money on 'bad' teenagers," she said. "Most General Assembly members don't believe they know any families with teenagers who are actually impacted by SB 440."
Still, Boggs said, policy-makers may soon be ready to have that debate.
"I really think we are on the verge of going into some difficult areas that heretofore might have been politically impossible," he said.
Under SB440, offenders 16 or younger automatically go before a Superior Court judge if they are accused of one of those seven crimes. If a judge signs off, however, prosecutors and defense attorneys can agree — based on the defendant's mental health, education, family background or other circumstances — to send a case to juvenile authorities. The juvenile system may hold offenders for up to five years or until the offender’s 21st birthday.
State officials have reported increasing recidivism among all youths leaving juvenile prisons in recent years as the detained population specifically has grown older and more violent, a product of more commitments and longer sentences for SB440 offenses. The state Department of Juvenile Justice says youths 18 and older — who were just 7 percent of its prison population in 2000 — now make up 40 percent. The portion who are labeled as "designated felons," whose offense would be a serious crime if committed by an adult, is now 96 percent, up from about one-third a decade ago.
The trend may have reached critical mass in 2010 and 2011, as a wave of violence swept through Georgia's youth prisons, culminating in the November 2011 beating death of a 19-year-old in his Augusta cell. Unannounced inspections of offenders' cells statewide later turned up cellphones, tobacco, homemade weapons and other contraband. Gang graffiti was commonplace in many facilities.
That edgier environment — which some prisoners compare to that of adult lock-ups — can harden youths and explain why some return to crime. But criminal justice professionals and advocates say many ex-offenders, once they've gone home, also aren't getting proper schooling and mental health care that could help them put their lives back together.
DJJ, by providing medication, therapy and other services, has become the state's de facto mental health care system for many of those juveniles. Half or more of youths in detention have been diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder, often one that played a role in their crimes.
In fact, judges frequently transfer SB440 cases to the juvenile system because they know adult prisons do not offer similar services. Those programs are considered particularly helpful to children who have trouble respecting sexual boundaries.
Once offenders leave a DJJ facility, though, they must rely on Georgia's severely underfunded system for mental health care - ranked 49th per-capita in a 2009 survey by the Kaiser Foundation. As a consequence, many no longer have access to treatments or drugs prescribed for their conditions.
"When they don't take medications, when they don't have a strong support system to reinforce what they need, they're going to come into contact repeatedly with the justice system," Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said.
Georgia is spending at least $82 million to settle a federal complaint regarding the state's inadequate care for mental health patients. Treatment for juveniles, though, was excluded from terms of the settlement.
Public schools also can present a roadblock to rehabilitation. Offenders take classes in DJJ's accredited school system while they're in confinement but, after release, they're typically shunted into alternative schools or barred from re-enrolling for up to a year.
In many communities, students in alternative schools must fend for themselves, sitting at computer terminals while they plow through instructional workbooks. A teacher is generally available to answer questions but does not lead the instruction.
"It's really about self-motivation," said Randee Waldman, director of Emory University's Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic. "A lot of our kids are not self-motivated. That's why they're there in the first place."
Many should be in a special-education program. "If you stick them in front of a computer and tell them to learn, it's a challenge," Waldman said.
Offenders say local school systems often steer them away from seeking a high school diploma. They're encouraged instead, Waldman said, to work toward a GED that won't help them nearly as much to land a decent job. "Quite frankly, it's an ... easy way out," she said. "It's a shortcut, and kids like to take shortcuts."
Frequently, alternative school is only offered for a half-day, allowing students to fall even further behind their grade level. Half-days also leave many ex-offenders idle and without adult supervision at a time of day when they need it most.
Judge Walker, a former schoolteacher, bemoans the increasing reliance on alternative schools for ex-offenders, who face long odds trying to land a decent job without an education.
"I don't understand how we're doing anything except pushing children out of school," she said. "The one opportunity that children have is education. We've cut off their one opportunity for success."
DJJ officials recognize that education and mental health issues are closely linked to recidivism. But the agency has only recently started to track whether ex-offenders are in school or receiving mental health treatment.
Recidivism in the juvenile justice system seems to carry a disproportionate impact on minority communities, JJIE's data analysis found. African-American offenders detained there for SB440 crimes were 2.7 times as likely as whites to be convicted of another felony within three years of release.
There is no evidence that race is the reason that some youths commit more crimes than others. Rather, ethnicity can serve as a "proxy," criminal justice experts say, for poverty, lack of educational opportunity, unsafe neighborhoods and other factors that can contribute to recidivism.
The racial disparity found in the data analysis did not surprise DJJ officials. Disproportionate numbers of minorities come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage — police, courts and rehabilitation, recently retired DJJ assistant commissioner Jeff Minor said. He noted that other states have also found a racial imbalance in their juvenile justice populations.
Georgia's racial recidivism gap, though, appears larger than in other states that track such numbers. Studies found recidivism among black juveniles was slightly higher than for whites in Delaware and Missouri. In Washington state, the rates for both races were roughly the same.
The disparity in Georgia holds true even among youths whom DJJ classifies as having the same likelihood for recidivism, the JJIE study found. Among medium- and high-risk offenders, for example, 57 percent of black youth reoffended within three years, compared to just 15 percent of whites.