At today’s meeting of the Legislative Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force, legislators heard from the Honorable Steven Teske, a juvenile judge from Clayton County, Georgia who described pilot reforms in that state’s juvenile justice system that have contributed to a 62 percent decline in the detention of juveniles in participating counties from 2002 to 2014.
The legislative task force was created in response to growing concerns about Arkansas’s prison overcrowding, reentry and high recidivism rate. It is tasked with identifying the underlying causes of high prison populations and creating responsible cost-effective solutions.
Teske has been recognized by the Washington Post and other national outlets for speaking out against the excesses of zero tolerance policies in schools and their harmful effects on minority students in particular. He has achieved massive reforms in Clayton County’s juvenile justice system.
“The juvenile justice system is everyone,” said Teske. “That includes the family, the school, the court and the community.”
Teske’s approach encourages cooperation and collaboration among detention facilities, families, community organizations and the courts. He said Georgia is the first state in the country to have developed a written agreement between courts, police and the school system to tackle reforms and track the number of student suspensions that result in adjudication in the juvenile courts.
Data collected by the Georgia Council of Criminal Justice Reform Workgroup found that out of 619 juveniles locked up in the state’s youth detention centers, 39 percent are classified as “low-risk.” Housing those offenders costs the state around $91,000 per bed, with a 65 percent recidivism rate over a period of three years. About 1,200 other juveniles are removed from their home but housed in other settings, costing the state anywhere from $29,000 to $88,000 per individual annually.
These findings, Teske said, confirmed that Georgia had too many low-risk juvenile offenders committed to state custody and that in order to reduce the number of commitments, the state needed to determine best practices for prevention and intervention. Georgia determined that judges cannot commit a juvenile to the state for a misdemeanor offense, that risk and needs assessments should be considered in sentencing and that reinvesting funds in community-based programs at the county level is effective in reducing recidivism rates.
Teske told the legislators that, “diseases do not occur by chance. There are always determinants for the disease to occur. Diseases aren’t distributed at random either. Distribution is related to risk factors that need to be studied for the population in order to identify solutions.” He asked the task force to identify what “toughness” really looks like in the juvenile justice system. Policymakers, he said, often want to be tough on crime because it seems like common sense — but “common sense doesn’t always get us to the same place as empirical data.”