One Georgia County Reimagines Its Response to Juvenile Delinquency

Posted February 13, 2017
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog onegeorgiacountyreimaginesitsresponds 2017

Like every coun­ty in the Unit­ed States, Chatham Coun­ty, Geor­gia ― home to Savan­nah ― has a cer­tain num­ber of youth on the precipice of seri­ous delin­quent behav­ior. But while these young peo­ple often would end up incar­cer­at­ed in juve­nile facil­i­ties, Chatham Coun­ty is tak­ing a dif­fer­ent approach, devel­op­ing inno­v­a­tive ways to more accu­rate­ly assess needs and risks. Already, it is pro­duc­ing bet­ter out­comes for youth while improv­ing pub­lic safety.

The Casey Foun­da­tion is pro­vid­ing strate­gic sup­port and tech­ni­cal assis­tance to Chatham Coun­ty as part of the Foundation’s com­mit­ment to reduc­ing the incar­cer­a­tion of youth who do not pose a risk to com­mu­ni­ty safe­ty. These efforts stem from research that shows pos­i­tive rela­tion­ships and activ­i­ties have a ben­e­fi­cial effect on young peo­ple, and are worth a community’s investment.

Chatham County’s work is part of Georgia’s broad­er juve­nile reform effort, begun by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2012. With strate­gic sup­port from a Foun­da­tion team, the Chatham Coun­ty Juve­nile Court has spear­head­ed a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort among the Savan­nah-Chatham Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police Depart­ment, Savan­nah-Chatham Coun­ty Pub­lic Schools, busi­ness rep­re­sen­ta­tives and oth­er stake­hold­ers. The ini­tia­tive seeks to give pos­i­tive direc­tion and super­vi­sion to youth in the community.

To gen­er­ate sup­port from the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty, the juve­nile court, police depart­ment and school sys­tem host­ed two Com­mu­ni­ty Safe­ty Forums. More than 200 peo­ple attend­ed each forum and learned about the pop­u­la­tion of youth in need of col­lec­tive prob­lem solv­ing due to chron­ic tru­an­cy and school sus­pen­sions, repeat­ed run-ins with law enforce­ment, vio­la­tions of pro­ba­tion or com­mit­ment by juve­nile court.

The effort includes adopt­ing tools and devel­op­ing mech­a­nisms aimed at pro­vid­ing more infor­ma­tion to law enforce­ment, intake pro­fes­sion­als, pro­ba­tion offi­cers and judges to under­stand the youth who appear before them. As a result of the revised juve­nile jus­tice code that went into effect on Jan­u­ary 1, 2014, new risk assess­ment tools help deci­sion mak­ers iden­ti­fy those youth who are like­ly to reof­fend and who require more atten­tion and support.

The impact of these efforts is impres­sive. In the past two years, over­all refer­rals of youth to Chatham Coun­ty Juve­nile Court have declined by more than 30%, while school refer­rals in par­tic­u­lar have decreased by 50%. Tech­ni­cal pro­ba­tion vio­la­tions have been reduced by more than 75%, and com­mit­ments to the state Depart­ment of Juve­nile Jus­tice have gone down by 48%.

We’re encour­aged by the direc­tion we are now tak­ing to be more inten­tion­al in spend­ing pre­cious and scarce resources with those who are engaged in risky behav­ior that com­pro­mis­es safe­ty,” says LeRoy Burke III, pre­sid­ing judge of the Chatham Coun­ty Juve­nile Court.

In addi­tion, the col­lab­o­ra­tive is:

  • explor­ing ways to bet­ter assess a young person’s needs with­out wait­ing for him or her to wind up on a juve­nile court dock­et or a pro­ba­tion officer’s caseload;
  • study­ing restora­tive prac­tice as a way to pro­mote account­abil­i­ty and address harm caused in a holis­tic way;
  • ana­lyz­ing and shar­ing data to hone in on spe­cif­ic high-need zip codes in hopes of more effec­tive­ly tar­get­ing local resources; and
  • hop­ing to cre­ate a year-long paid work-readi­ness pro­gram to pro­vide enrich­ment activ­i­ties, job-skill devel­op­ment and con­nec­tions to pos­i­tive adults for youth who are in need of a more inten­sive intervention.

As refer­rals to juve­nile courts decrease local­ly and nation­al­ly, and youth assessed as low risk are divert­ed from the sys­tem more fre­quent­ly, young peo­ple who remain under the super­vi­sion of juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems will require more spe­cial­ized con­sid­er­a­tion. Local­i­ties will need to work togeth­er to cre­ate a con­tin­u­um of options to address com­plex needs in the com­mu­ni­ty. Places like Chatham Coun­ty are on the right track, and if suc­cess­ful will play a crit­i­cal role in the larg­er effort to reimag­ine how we respond to delin­quen­cy both in the com­mu­ni­ty and in an out-of-home setting.

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