Juveniles skipping school commit half of burglaries in Fulton County and recent juvenile justice reforms may add to the problem, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.
State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, sponsored the reform bill and said it gives police officers and prosecutors more time to prepare for the changes. The bill awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature.
Howard said at the April 11 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting that changes to the state’s juvenile justice code leave police officers with no place to keep juvenile offenders after they are arrested. During the meeting, Howard said that, in spite of a good track record cracking down on burglaries, there has been a recent uptick, an increase of 1.6 percent over last year.
Howard said police Atlanta Chief George Turner attributes the increase to gang activity and Howard added, “48 percent of the burglaries in our county are committed by juveniles when they should be in school.”
“One of the things you all might pay some attention to: as you know there is a new juvenile code that’s been put into effect,” Howard said. “I think it goes into effect July 1 and in that new reorganization of our juvenile system … they’re supposed to be put in community centers. Now there’s some question about who’s supposed to pay for them, but right now there are no community centers, so it’s going to be really interesting to see what is the effect upon the burglary cases in our community if there are juveniles who commit the burglaries and there’s not a place to put them to at least discourage them from that going forward.”
Willard said Howard was incorrect about the date the law takes effect. He said the law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, not July 1, 2013. He also said that there is money available for the centers and that cost savings will also go toward implementing the reforms.
“We felt it may be, time-wise, pushing the envelope too much to get everybody educated and brought up to speed as far as the courts and attorneys in juvenile practice,” Willard said.
Willard said the governor’s budget proposal includes $5 million in seed money for the community centers and the first centers will be built in areas with the highest juvenile detention rates.
“That’s beginning money,” Willard said. “We’ll start with those areas. We’re not going to be able to do every program we would like to do in the state at the beginning.”
The intent of the law is to make distinctions between juvenile offenders who skip school and those who commit more serious offenses. Willard said the state spends around $240 a day locking up juveniles, but reforms could bring the costs down to as low as $30 a day.
So what happens when a juvenile commits a burglary?
Willard said the bill breaks down felonies into two categories: Class A, the more serious offenses, and Class B, the less serious offenses. Armed robbery would be a Class A felony and burglary would be a Class B, Willard said.
Willard said every juvenile arrested will undergo a risk assessment to determine the best course for them, like a personal prescription for punishment. Willard said district attorneys will also have input in the process.
“We try to place things before the court as tools to better guide them on ways to treat the juveniles,” Willard said. “Hopefully, one thing we’re doing is standardizing how courts throughout the state will treat juvenile cases.”