As part of a local and national movement on comprehensive criminal justice reform, several Georgia counties have entered a pilot program seeking to greatly lower the vast amount of juveniles behind bars — and the often traumatizing and sometimes irreversible affects on the adolescents.
Fulton County, which houses the Georgia capital city of Atlanta, as well as Clarke, Glynn, Chatham and Newton counties are participating in the pilot project, The Athens Banner-Herald reported. The national nonprofit organization, Annie E. Casey Foundation, is aiming to find alternatives to juvenile detention.
Giving credit to Gov. Nathan Deal, the newspaper says the numbers of Georgia juveniles behind bars have dropped sharply since the Georgia legislature approved reforms in the state’s juvenile justice systems pushed by Deal, a former juvenile court judge.
Officials with the foundation, however, believe the numbers can go lower. This would have a two-pronged benefit, the foundation says: it would result in benefits to the state treasury; also there will be less harm to the young people caught up in the juvenile justice system.
Jim Payne, a technical assistance provider with the foundation, and Whitney Dickens, state coordinator of the initiative, were in Athens recently to help launch the project in Clarke County.
Dickens outlined a series of “core strategies” various agencies can use to reduce incarceration rates, and to make incarceration less traumatic for the youngsters locked up.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the racial component of juvenile incarceration, he said; Nationwide, African-American youths are disproportionately represented in juvenile justice proceedings and in detention, he said.
In Clarke County, which houses Athens, Ga., a much higher percentage of adolescents who appear before the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court Judge Robin Shearer are African-American, she said.
A similar trend is reflected in some discipline statistics from the Clarke County School District, the Athens newspaper reported.
Through mid-May, the school district conducted 212 disciplinary hearings for high school and middle school students, according to school district statistics; of those, 179 were African American students, about 85 percent.
But race is just a part of the equation, he said. Oftentimes, kids end up in detention because police officers know if they detain a parent or parents, they’ll also have to find a place for their children overnight. They simply find it easier to take the children into custody, Payne said.
“Sometimes we overreact to kids,” Payne said.