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Georgia takes new approach to juvenile justice, prison reform

Several courts in Georgia are working to reform the juvenile justice system, while Gov. Nathan Deal has pledged his support of new ways of dealing with nonviolent offenders statewide.

As part of an effort to take a more holistic approach to juvenile crime, courts in several counties throughout Georgia are working with the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps to better collaborate with the state Department of Family and Children's Services. These efforts aim to provide better mechanisms for dealing with juvenile crime, paying more attention to youth from troubled backgrounds and giving young offenders and their families the resources they need to avoid problem behaviors.

As profiled in a recent Center for Public Integrity article, Newton County, just east of Atlanta, has changed its strategy for working with minors in the juvenile justice system, recognizing that many of these young offenders have also had contact with child welfare services. This is a shift from the typical process, in which judges and prosecutors rarely look at factors outside of the individual's juvenile criminal record.

As part of these changes, Newton County first finds out if a juvenile offender has a file with the Georgia DFCS. Officials started this process in June 2013, and since then have determined that about 54 percent of young offenders have been involved with DFCS programs at some point in their lives.

A different approach to criminal justice

The initiative in suburban Atlanta may be a reflection of statewide efforts to reform the Georgia criminal justice system overall. The Rockdale Citizen reported on comments Gov. Nathan Deal made in his January inaugural address, in which he expressed support for accountability courts that have successfully helped to reform nonviolent offenders of all ages. The governor said that these courts had nearly 5,000 participants as of the beginning of 2015, and that the program gives individuals the second chances they desperately want and need to turn their lives around.

Deal, a Republican elected to his second term in November, also outlined future plans to include giving nonviolent offenders behind bars more educational and job training opportunities to prepare them for life beyond prison. This, the governor believes, will reduce recidivism and give individuals a better chance at gaining meaningful employment, making it less likely that they will have to resort back to a life of crime.

The numbers on prison reform

While Georgia appears to be on the path to perhaps a more informed method of dealing with juvenile crime and nonviolent offenders, advocates are also calling for major reforms to the federal prison system. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, the number of people incarcerated in federal prisons has risen by about 700 percent over the past three decades, even though the total U.S. population has only increased by about 32 percent.

In addition, incarceration rates in state-run facilities have decreased steadily over the past several years, while the federal prison population continues to grow. The NCPA argues that federal prison populations grew immensely after the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which reduced or eliminated good time credits and parole options for incarcerated individuals. This law has helped add nearly $200 million per year to the federal prison budget, as well.

The state of Georgia and the U.S. federal prison system may be at a crossroads when it comes to how they deal with offenders, especially those who are very young or who committed nonviolent crimes. If you or a loved one has been arrested and are facing misdemeanor or felony charges, consult a dedicated Marietta criminal defense lawyer right away.

Keywords: Georgia, prison reform, juvenile justice