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Options lacking for young offenders
Jail time and alternatives have diminished
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Late last month, three children, ages 11, 12 and 14, were charged along with a 17-year-old adult with burglarizing a Laura Drive home and stealing jewelry.

Less than a week later, three more juveniles, ages 14, 15 and 16, were charged along with an 18-year-old in the burglary of a house on Piedmont Road, where a flat-screen television was taken.

Residential burglaries involving such youthful offenders are not common in Gainesville, though they do seem to come and go in waves and often have much to do with a group-think mentality, officials say. Last year, 45 were juveniles charged with burglary in Hall County, and 37 juveniles have been charged with burglary to date this year.

Still, the ages involved have given police pause.

“It’s alarming,” Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper said. “A lot of it has to do with lack of supervision. Parents have got to ask questions.”

Meanwhile, the juvenile court system where the cases are handled has been hindered by state budget cuts in recent years, causing frustrations for prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges alike.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said a lack of tough consequences for juveniles charged with serious crimes like burglary seems to result in the same kids ending up in court time and again. In 2001, Georgia’s juvenile court judges could detain youthful offenders for up to 90 days in a youth detention center. By last year it was 60 days. This year, due mainly to budget cuts, the maximum detention in first-time offenses was reduced to 30 days.

“You have to take each case on an individual basis, but options for the juvenile courts are more and more limited as time goes on, and there’s not enough accountability built into the law for many juvenile offenders,” Darragh said.

Some teens are in for a shock when they become adults at 17 and find themselves sentenced to hard jail time for offenses that got a few weeks, if that, in a juvenile lock-up, Darragh said.

Certain crimes, known in juvenile court as “delinquent acts,” still qualify juveniles for longer incarceration. A 15- or 16-year-old who commits a fourth felony can be placed into restrictive custody by a judge for up to five years, though few cases require that. A teenager suspected of committing one of the so-called “seven deadly sins” that include murder, rape and aggravated child molestation is automatically charged as an adult.

But most juvenile crimes fall below that level of seriousness. Criminal trespass, damage to property and simple battery are more common in juvenile court than burglaries or stabbings.

Assistant Circuit Defender Ari Mathe noted that rehabilitation and supervision is the stated purpose of juvenile court under Georgia law, and believes that detention by and large doesn’t serve that purpose. Mathe says statistics show youth who are detained for 120 days benefit no more than those locked up for 30.

“While I understand it’s popular to lock people up for longer periods of time, when dealing with juvenile court, you’re not doing what is going to make the public most happy, but what is best for the child,” Mathe said.

What’s best for youthful offenders, Mathe said, are alternative programs outside of the home that include community service, education and group counseling. Outdoor therapeutic programs that were effective in getting juveniles away from poor home environments or the bad influences of other teens “are no longer really available on a consistent basis because of budgetary reasons,” Mathe said.

Liz Simmons, a longtime assistant district attorney in Hall County’s juvenile court, voiced the same concerns from the prosecution side.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the options are dwindling because of budget issues,” Simmons said.

Earlier this year, Avita Community Partners, a nonprofit, state-funded agency which provides mental health treatment for some youthful offenders, was forced to cut 37 positions and $3.7 million from its budget.

Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Jolliff said he once could commit children to the Department of Juvenile Justice knowing they would be eligible for treatment programs outside their homes.

“Those are gone,” Jolliff said. “They’ve suffered so many budget cuts, a lot of our options for out-of-home placements are gone. It’s highly frustrating.”

Jolliff said there seems to be little middle ground in the options for youthful offenders.

“Now we’re almost left with detention or home, and nothing in between,” he said.

One bright spot is the Hall County Juvenile Court’s high rate of restitution. In 2008, juveniles paid nearly $30,000 out to the victims of their crimes, most earning the money through minimum wage jobs they worked as a part of their community service.

Giving victims a chance to be in court when a juvenile faces the judge is important, too, Jolliff said. He credits the district attorney’s office with having a victim-witness advocate dedicated to juvenile court to ensure that victims have their day in court. Putting a face to the victim can give youthful offenders empathy they typically lack, Jolliff said.

“These kids have to realize they hurt somebody,” Jolliff said. “That they really did take away someone’s sense of security and safety. Sometimes that’s a big part of their rehabilitation.”
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