When lawmakers were considering the reforms three years ago, researchers at the Pew Charitable Trust said the state could save $85 million during the next five years, largely from avoiding the costs of building two new secure facilities.
Now, as the number of youth in detention facilities come down, the state has the potential to take money they would have spent on running the facilities and put the funding into additional community programming, said Joe Vignati, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
The latest budget proposal from Gov. Deal calls for closing one long-term youth detention facility and moving more than $5 million into community-based alternatives. For example, the budget proposal includes $2.7 million for 40 “step-down” slots that help move kids from secure detention to residential facilities.
The code overhaul is what allowed for the slots, but the money wasn’t there in the first few years for the department to make use of them. Now they can as the savings from reform become tangible.
“We’re basically taking all those funds and moving them from secure facilities into the communities. That’s a big shift,” Vignati said.
The costs of long-term and short-term lock-up still make up more than 60 percent of the state Department of Juvenile Justice’s budget, but the costs are growing more slowly than community services in the governor’s most recent proposal.
From fiscal year 2014 to the fiscal year 2017 proposal, funding for community services grew 17 percent, from $82 million to $95 million in a budget of $334 million. Meanwhile, funding for secure commitment grew 11 percent, from $85 million to $95 million and secure detention grew 12 percent from $107 million to $120 million.
Vignati said the costs of long-term and short-term confinement should continue to come down — and the savings redirected to community programs — as the state gets a handle on just how low the number of juvenile offenders they house can go.
But even as fewer beds are used, the costs of running the existing facilities won’t go away. They require staffing, heating and maintenance. Additional costs also could come from the need to update facilities built decades ago and to ensure they’re equipped to handle the highest-risk teenagers, who aren’t placed in community services, said Vignati.
“We’re going to get tougher kids, they’re going to be more resistant to treatment so it requires more intensive services,” he said.
The state also has steadily increased the amount of funding dedicated to Juvenile Justice Incentive Grants program, from $6 million in the fiscal year 2014 budget to $8.8 million in fiscal year 2016. In the participating counties, 1,666 youth had access to evidence-based programming in the second year of the program, up from 1,122 in the first. The programs all are ranked “effective” or “promising” on a federal registry to reduce criminogenic behaviors in juveniles and the counties have chosen programs rooted in individual, family or group therapy.
Overall, the counties saw out-of-home placements drop 54 percent in fiscal year 2015, compared with a 2012 baseline.
Steve Teske, the Clayton County juvenile judge who started Second Chance Court and has helped lead the charge for reform statewide, said the grants have been instrumental in his county.
The Second Chance program already was underway and showing significant decreases in secure commitment when the incentive program began.
However, the grant allowed the county to target the needs of youth who still were being committed, often for family dysfunction, Teske said. During fiscal year 2015, out-of-home placements dropped 63 percent in the county.
Mark Ferrante, a senior policy analyst at the Council on State Government’s Justice Center, said Georgia also has been aggressive about pursuing federal funding to support its work.
“They’re very thoughtful and proactive about applying for grants,” he said.