Groundbreaking efforts keeping teens out of Georgia's criminal justice system

Georgia moves forward with efforts to keep teens out of criminal justice system

ATLANTA — In the latest chapter of Channel 2 Action News' ongoing series highlighting crime solutions in Metro Atlanta, investigative reporter Aaron Diamant takes a deep dive into groundbreaking efforts to keep Georgia's teens out of the criminal justice system.

Over the last several years, the state of Georgia has seen a massive philosophical shift in how it handles kids charged with crimes. From smaller community groups to large-scale efforts that target and help guide at-risk youth, Diamant spoke with the leaders making the changes and the kids getting their best shot at success.

"It's a lifesaver to me," said high school senior Vernard Kennedy. %

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Kennedy, and the rest the rest of his L.E.A.D. Ambassador baseball team, got a second chance at life before it ever went south.

"It's keeping me busy instead of doing crimes,” Kennedy told Diamant. “When I could be out robbing people, killing people, instead, I'm having fun doing baseball and networking with big companies to help me in the future."

The baseball program, founded by former Chicago Cub standout and city of Atlanta native C.J. Stewart, targets Atlanta Public Schools teens at the highest risk for trouble. Stewart and his wife, Kelli, preach life skills to keep the young men out of "the system."

"Our goal is to make them aware of the system," Kelli Steward said. "The system that says if they're born into poverty in the city of Atlanta, they have a 4 percent chance of making it out. The system that says they have a better chance at being murdered and being involved in the criminal justice system than graduating from high school or going to prom."

While programs like the Stewarts’ impact the lives of a fortunate few, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, remains focused on the bigger picture.

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"I think the future of our state is really at stake,” Deal told Diamant in a recent one-on-one interview. “We cannot continue to have one segment of our society that has no education, no marketable skills and therefore becomes the fodder for our prison system."

To flip that script, over the last few years the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has developed and overseen the rollout of systemic changes, including new laws designed to divert thousands of nonviolent and lower-risk juvenile offenders into evidence-based, community-centered, grant-funded programs for rehabilitation, rather than just locking them all up.

"When you see the children suffering with those same mental health and substance abuse issues that you see a lot of our adults in, our adult corrections side of the house, that's just heartbreaking," said council co-chair Thomas Worthy.

And while success will be measured down the road in cost savings and by the number of repeat customers juvenile courts see, so far, the number of commitments is down 25 percent statewide.

"The data is certainly showing we're moving in the right direction," Worthy said.

Locally, Clayton County adopted similar reforms back in 2003. Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske told Diamant, since then, he's seen a 71 percent drop in delinquency filings, which has freed up more time to hear critical cases and more cash to pay for diversion programs. %

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"When you think about what your mission is, which is to rehabilitate, which is really saving lives, it does get personal," Teske said.

Teske’s sentiment is not lost on members of Forest Park's Walking in Authority Teen Council, who recently visited Teske’s courtroom and watched as the judge gave several fellow teens a shot at redemption.

"It makes me want to go back to school and say, ‘You know, I get that you might want to do the bad things, but it's not worth it,’” said member Kazia Taylor. “It's definitely not worth it, because you can throw your life away over one bad decision."

Right now, 60 Georgia counties participate in the new grant system that funds community-based diversion programs. State leaders expect that number to keep climbing.

Meanwhile, Gov. Deal says his next big push will be an education reform package, which will include specific measures Deal believes will play a key role in keeping at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system.