Hunstein urged lawmakers to read a report produced by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform and to act on the council’s recommendations.
She highlighted some successes of the adult criminal reform legislation, which was passed last year and took into account many of the council’s recommendations. She said the state needs to take similar steps for juvenile offenders to divert lower-risk youth to community treatment programs rather than locking them up.
“No one is urging Georgia to become soft on crime,” the chief justice said. “Some of our juvenile offenders have committed heinous, violent crimes and must be treated as adults and locked away from society. But they are the minority. For our citizens’ sake, we must do better with the majority. Many of our juveniles deserve a second chance.”
Hunstein highlighted that Georgia spends more than $90,000 annually on each juvenile behind bars, only to watch 75 percent of offenders commit crimes again.
“Surely our return on investment warrants juvenile justice reform,” she said.
The chief justice also urged greater investment in behavioral health programs. She said she often hears from juvenile court judges who are frustrated that they have few options — other than incarceration — for petty thieves and other repeat criminals who need counseling related to sexual abuse, physical abuse or other hardships.
“It’s almost impossible to get mental health services for clearly disturbed youngsters unless they threaten suicide or homicide,” she said. Quoting one juvenile court judge, she added, “If we wait for the explosions, they will come.”
Hunstein also reminded lawmakers that the judiciary operates with less than 1 percent of the state’s budget.