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Chatham Juvenile Prosecutor Explains Reforms

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The state of Georgia will soon have a whole new system for dealing with juvenile offenders. Governor Nathan Deal signed into law today a bill that will overhaul the state's Juvenile Justice System. His office says reform was needed because the old system simply wasn't working and was costing too much money. An estimated 90-thousand dollars a year for each child held in a Detention Center, more than half of those ending up back inside within three years.

Diane McLeod has been prosecuting juvenile offenders in Chatham County for nearly five years. She says the new law brings two major changes. First - in the way an offender's record is viewed. "Right now when a child comes into detention - we have a - it's somewhat like a scoresheet and it looks at a child's history, background, current crime and it assigns a score to that child to determine whether or not the child should be released, released with conditions or remain in detention." Currently - the courts, Department of Juvenile Justice and each jurisdiction has their own scoresheet. The new law will standardize the scoresheet throughout the state. The other big change concerns the way juveniles are sentenced - separating felony offenses into two classes – "A" for more serious, violent offenses; "B" for lesser crimes. Mcleod says it will result in fewer kids being confined...and many for shorter stretches of time, "Class A felonies, the children can be sentenced up to 60 months, with the Class B felonies - they can only be sentenced up to 36 months…the goal behind the law is to have more children remain in the community and less children in detention." Instead enrolled in community based programs designed to steer the child away from re-offending. That's something the Governor says will be an improvement on the current system where more than half of all delinquents offend again within three years.

McLeod says it remains to be seen how well the new system will work, "Do you think that that will help? For some maybe - for others - its gonna be a lot more difficult for us to commit some children who probably need to be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and so we're just gonna wait and see whether or not the programs are gonna be innovative enough to keep the children from re-offending."

The Governor's Office estimates the changes will save 85-million dollars over five years-- including eliminating the need for two new detention facilities. McLeod says more details should be available by the fall on the criteria used for sentencing. The reforms themselves won't go into effect until January.

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