Youth justice reform efforts continue in Georgia


The best legacy of Gov. Nathan Deal’s two terms in office might well be the series of sweeping reforms in criminal justice that the General Assembly has enacted on his watch and under his leadership.

Deal inherited an unsustainable and prohibitively expensive system sagging under the weight of sentencing laws that were a case of short-term politics leading to long-term problems.

Deal created the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which began with the adult courts and corrections system and soon moved on to juvenile justice. In both realms, the results were new and/or rewritten laws that offered nonviolent offenders alternative, often community-based sentencing options instead of just putting them in jails or juvenile detention centers.

The next stage, it appears, is a series of programs designed to keep high-risk young people — or any young people, for that matter — from crossing paths with the criminal justice system in the first place. Many of these programs are or will be connected with schools, like an Atlanta youth baseball program run by Atlanta native and former Chicago Cub C.J. Stewart and his wife Kelli.

“Our goal,” Kelli Stewart told WSB-TV in Atlanta, “is to make them aware of the system … that says they have a better chance of being murdered and being involved in the criminal justice system than graduating from high school or going to the prom.”

Such programs are targeting young people all over Georgia, including here in Columbus and around the Valley area.

"I think the future of our state is really at stake,” Deal said in a recent interview with the TV station. “We cannot continue to have one segment of our society that has no education, no marketable skills and therefore becomes the fodder for our prison system."

The Stewarts’ youth baseball program targets high-risk teens in Atlanta Public Schools. And schools are where another component of the governor’s juvenile justice reform plan will be focused. “The ultimate criminal justice reform,” Deal said recently, “is education reform.”

That means, according to a recent report on WABE, the Georgia Public Broadcasting radio affiliate in Atlanta, stopping up the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

One of the new juvenile justice reform laws is designed to ensure that students get a fair shake at school discipline hearings. The goal is to reduce out-of-school suspensions, which all too often become dropout statistics. According to the state’s own data, WABE reports, schools with high suspension rates have low graduation rates. And 75 percent of the state’s prison population consists of high school dropouts.

You can’t get a much clearer picture of the “pipeline” than that.

The new guidelines for the school suspension process were approved by the Georgia Board of Education. The most important change is that school discipline hearing officers must meet minimum training standards.

The new standards, Mike Tafelski of Georgia Legal Services told WABE, “will require training on the law, training on due process requirements and protections in school discipline hearings, and all of these are important to ensure that when students are facing a suspension or expulsion, they are going to be treated fairly.” The risk, if they are not, Tafelski said, is that students who might have been wrongly sent home sometimes have long waits for appeal.

Like the other elements of justice reform in Georgia, these youth intervention programs are not designed to give troublemakers a wrist slap or a free pass. They’re designed to prevent lives of crime and violence for which we all pay the costs, and in more than just money.

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