Lawmaker defends juvenile justice reform laws


Renee Unterman

LAWRENCEVILLE — The state’s new “smart on crime” approach to juvenile justice could not only save money but help kids, a legislator said in response to a juvenile judge’s critique of the new law a week before.

“Building on the success of the criminal justice system reforms in 2012, Gov. Nathan Deal and the General Assembly this year tackled a significant and positive reform of our state’s Juvenile Justice System that will save tax dollars and improve public safety,” Buford Sen. Renee Unterman said in an op-ed she wrote to counter the recent comments from Gwinnett Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus.

“Change is needed when a government program costs too much and still produces lousy results,” Unterman said, pointing out that the old system was not working. “Despite the exorbitant price of more than $91,000 annually to house a youth in a Youth Development Campus, nearly two-thirds of juveniles leaving these facilities reoffend within three years, even though many were nonviolent offenders and considered low risk when they entered. In other words, taxpayers are footing the bill to train better criminals.”

Rodatus criticized the newly passed law, saying that it added procedures that added work but did not help kids.

Seeking new staffers to help oversee probation for the children who will no longer meet a threshold of detainment, during a presentation to county budget planners last week, Rodatus blasted the law for other expected increases in the cost of indigent defense lawyers and said the new regulations on runaways could cause an explosion in the population of homeless teenagers.

“It does nothing to improve the lot of children in the state of Georgia,” Rodatus said.

But Unterman disagreed, saying lawmakers unanimously supported the reform bill to focus the state’s resources on higher-risk offenders, keeping the lower-risk nonviolent youth out of a setting where they could learn worse behavior.

“Law enforcement, judges, lawyers and advocates all agree that finite county and state resources force us all to realize an important public safety lesson: We need to distinguish between offenders who scare us and those we are simply mad at. Unfortunately, our current system doesn’t consistently make this distinction. So, despite good intentions, we cycle thousands of lower-level offenders through a revolving door. This doesn’t safeguard our neighborhoods, and it’s a tremendous expense for county and state taxpayers,” she said.

Unterman also pointed out that the state set aside $5.6 million to help counties bear the costs of treatment. Gwinnett received a $400,000 grant for those endeavors, although Rodatus said the state did not fund other costs.

“These changes … will help Georgia’s nonviolent young offenders re-enter society as productive citizens and allow the state to focus its limited resources on truly dangerous offenders,” Unterman said.