Youth Incarceration Rate Plummets in Georgia

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Opportunity Soars for Alternative, More Effective Responses to Court-Involved Youth

Youth Incarceration
in Georgia

  • The rate of youth incarceration dropped 52 percent between 1997 and 2010.
  • This is the 7th largest decline in the nation.
  • More than half of youths in confinement were convicted of non-violent offenses, while 40 percent are considered low-risk.
  • Georgia spends $91,000 per year on each child in youth prison compared to $19,000 per adult in prison.
  • The recidivism rate for incarcerated youth in Georgia is 65 percent.

Youth confinement is on the decline, both in Georgia and across the nation. Still, more than 2,000 youths ages 13-21 are incarcerated through Georgia’s juvenile justice system in youth prisons and jails and residential correction programs.

According to a KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, this decline in youth incarceration did not correlate with a decrease in public safety. The snapshot shows that the rate of locking up young people in trouble with the law across the nation dropped by more than 40 percent over a 15-year period.

“We’re pleased that Georgia’s rate of youth confinement declined 52 percent between 1997 and 2010,” said Georgia Family Connection Partnership Executive Director Gaye Smith. “The drop in Georgia is the seventh largest in the nation for that time period. Juvenile crime has fallen, the public is safer, and youth are getting a second chance. A decline like this also represents a significant savings to taxpayers.”

Georgia spends $91,000 per year on each child in youth prison compared to $19,000 per adult. The difference in cost is due to the education and other services that the state must provide to youth in confinement under both state and federal law. Yet the recidivism rate for incarcerated youth is 65 percent. That is a poor return on a significant investment both in terms of initial outlay and eventual lost earnings and tax revenue that result from repeat incarceration and a failure to graduate and join the labor force.

More than half of youths in confinement in Georgia are convicted of non-violent offenses, while 40 percent are considered low-risk. This reflects the national trend. Despite the rapid decline, the United States still leads the industrialized world in locking up its young people and holds the majority of its incarcerated youth for nonviolent offenses—such as truancy, low-level property offenses and technical probation violations—that are not clear public-safety threats.

Georgia is considering legislation that would increase the number of community-based, non-confinement programs available to non-violent and low-risk juvenile offenders. The code revision, as recommended by the governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, would allow counties to reinvest money allotted for youth prisons in community-based resources. The proposed legislation would allot $5 million for non-confinement services to the counties that account for more than half of the juvenile detention population in Georgia. Similar programs in other states have produced cost savings by reducing incarceration rates.

The recommendations from the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform represent an opportunity to use state dollars more effectively and more efficiently. Reducing incarceration rates for non-violent and low-risk youth also increases the chances that these young people will graduate from high school, participate in the workforce, and become a part of Georgia’s tax base.

Although incarceration rates are declining across all racial groups, the 2010 data showed that black and Latino youths in Georgia were more likely to be locked up than white youths. This trend holds at the national level as well, where the data show the justice system still treats youth of color more severely. 

The KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot suggests ways to lessen reliance on incarceration and improve the odds for young people involved in the justice system. Recommendations include:

  • restricting incarceration to youth posing a clear risk to public safety;
  • investing in alternatives that effectively supervise, sanction, and treat youth in their homes and communities; and
  • encouraging states—which often have financial incentives to fall back on incarceration—to seek community-based alternatives to locking up kids.

“I’m optimistic that the leaders in Georgia are considering our most vulnerable citizens, including those who have gone astray of the law, and find value in salvaging them,” said Bartow County Juvenile Court Judge Velma Tilley. “There’s more work to do, but we’re on the road, as we collaborate together.”

Georgia is poised to be on the leading edge of juvenile justice reform. Some counties already are making strides toward more comprehensive services for youth offenders. In Carroll County, the local Family Connection Collaborative has been running a county Wellness Court for 12 years. The program, an alternative to youth incarceration, coordinates mental health providers, case workers, school resource officers, parents, and the youth offenders themselves to address the children’s issues and help them successfully work through their problems.

“As Georgia considers moving toward a community-based system of care for non-violent and low-risk offenders,” said Smith, “we encourage decision-makers to look at alternative detention programs like the one in Carroll County to seek evidence that such programs can and do offer more effective responses to our court-involved youth.”

Read the KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot: “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the United States.”

For interactive statewide data, visit Georgia KIDS COUNT at

Naja Williamson
Georgia KIDS COUNT Manager
404-527-7394 (x133)

Rebecca Rice
Georgia KIDS COUNT Coordinator
404-527-7394 (x103)

Follow us on Twitter: @gafcpnews

Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public/private partnership created by the State of Georgia and funders from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities. Georgia KIDS COUNT is funded, in part, through a grant from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States.