How a Georgia county is keeping more kids out of jail

Solutions

The Clayton County Juvenile Court in Jonesboro, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Colin Slay.

(NewsNation) — In 1999, judge Steven Teske joined the bench at the juvenile court in Clayton County, Georgia. He was alarmed by the fact that around a third of the cases he would receive were school-related. Teske began digging deeper, seeking to figure out why he was getting so many school cases.

He realized these arrests surged after police were introduced to middle and high school campuses in 1996. The year prior to the introduction of police in schools, the court received 49 referrals. By 2004, that surged to closer to 1,400 referrals.

“Ninety-two percent of all those arrests, okay, were misdemeanors. They were misdemeanors. Mostly those misdemeanors were things I did when I was in school… disorderly conduct, disrupting public school, school fights,” he said. “I mean, things that we didn’t traditionally arrest kids for, put handcuffs on, put ’em in the back of a patrol car. But that’s what we were doing.”

He started working with criminal justice reform consultants, the school superintendent and chief of police to change the way the county was responding to juvenile misbehavior.

Together, they enacted a series of reforms designed to keep kids who committed minor misbehaviors out of the juvenile justice system. They did this through “diversion and deflection.” Although the terms are often used interchangeably, diversion is when courts route offenders through alternatives to traditional punishment like community service. Deflection, on the other hand, is designed to prevent offenders from being handled by courts in the first place.

Teske and his colleagues wanted to deflect the flow of juvenile cases related to minor school incidents, so in 2004 they implemented a new tiered response system that was designed to reduce the number of misdemeanor offenses — things like disruption and fights — being referred to court.

The School Referral Reduction Program made it so students and their parents were first given a written warning when they committed an offense, referred to a conflict skills workshop when they committed a second offense and were only referred to the court on their third offense.

The county also started monitoring kids at risk of being sent to court and providing them with wraparound services such as family therapy.

These reforms reduced the number of cases sent to the court. As Teske would later recount to a U.S. Senate committee, “By the end of the 2011-12 school term, the number of students referred to the juvenile court for school offenses was reduced by 83%.”

Graduation rates also began to climb, and incidents of weapons brought to campus dropped at Clayton County schools, although this may not be a direct consequence of the response system.

Teske also implemented a diversion program called Second Chance to tackle court cases where youth offenders were considered to be at medium risk of reoffending.

“They didn’t go to prison, we put an ankle monitor, a GPS monitor, we could monitor their movement at any time and know where they have been. It would stay on their ankle for six months,” Teske said.

The kids would go through mandatory meetings with Teske, weekly classes, and cultural field trips to places like the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta or a Braves baseball game.

Teske noted that the recidivism rate for kids sent to prison was around 65%, but the rate for kids in Second Chance was generally between 17 and 23%.

He stressed that the systems he put in place aren’t perfect and there will always be kids who are given a second chance and end up reoffending anyways. He noted that one of the graduates of his Second Chance program went on to be arrested for murder.

He got a call from the local district attorney, who affirmed her support for the program afterward because it was reducing the risk of reoffending overall.

“(She said) if we get rid of the Second Chance program, then we’re going to increase the probability that it won’t be one murder, but in the future 2, 3, 4, 5,” he said.

Teske retired from the juvenile court in 2021. Clayton County continues to support its diversion and deflection programs and local officials believe these programs have helped reduce juvenile incarceration. Colin Slay, the county’s Director of Juvenile Court Operations, noted that they had just 427 juvenile complaints come to court in 2019, down from 2,600 in 2002.

A number of other juvenile court systems throughout the country have enacted their own reforms modeled on what Clayton County did, which has been dubbed the “Teske model.” These reforms are driven by the belief that putting kids who commit minor offenses behind bars can undermine safety in the long run.

“Prison isn’t the magic bullet, okay? And it really actually in most cases makes people worse. And we turn them into criminals,” Teske said.

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