ATLANTA — Lawmakers in the House approved a sweeping overhaul of Georgia's juvenile justice system on Thursday, unanimously approving the bill that now heads to the Senate for consideration.
The overall goal of the legislation is to reduce the number of repeat offenders and bring down costs within the juvenile justice system. The legislation, based on recommendations of a special panel convened by Gov. Nathan Deal, calls for emphasizing community-based programs over residential detention centers for non-violent youth offenders, providing judges with greater discretion in sentencing and offering more mental health and drug counseling.
Before lawmakers voted, bill sponsor Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, urged lawmakers to consider the high costs of the current system. He noted Georgia spends more than $90,000 a year on each youth offender behind bars and said 65 percent who are released end up back in jail within three years.
"You can put a child through the finest college in the country for less than that," Willard said.
The reform is estimated to save the state nearly $28 million between now and 2015 and allow the state to cease plans to build two additional secure residential detention facilities, Willard said. He noted the effort drew bipartisan support, involved input from various research and advocacy groups and was modeled on reforms passed in Texas and Ohio.
The overhaul has been a few years in the making. A bill with similar goals stalled during last year's session after there were concerns about who would bear some of the costs in transitioning from a system relying heavily on secure residential detention facilities to one with a strong emphasis on community-based programs.
Willard said those concerns have been addressed and some of the money saved by the state will be reinvested in programs established by the legislation. For instance, he said the governor has allocated $5 million in his budget to help local officials in areas where there are high concentrations of those who would be eligible for such programs to pay for them.