Macon – A new juvenile justice initiative will be in place Aug. 1 when students begin classes in Peach County public schools.
Representatives from several Peach County offices and state agencies signed the PEACH Pride Partnership Agreement Tuesday, agreeing to handle specific “Focused Act” offenses that typically are seen in schools outside the traditional court process. Examples of offenses included in the Agreement include: affray, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, disrupting a public school, misdemeanor obstruction, simple assault and possession of alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana (less than one ounce). Acts against school staff or damage to school property are not included in the Agreement.
With the Agreement in place, School Resource Officers are equipped with the tools and authority to assign a student who commits a Focused Act offense to programs aimed at addressing the root cause for the student’s delinquent behavior. By addressing the root causes of delinquent behavior, students get the help they need faster and they’ll be less likely to reoffend.
“People ask how we stop the school to prison pipeline. This is it,” said District Attorney David Cooke. “We’re building on the successful programs already in place in Peach County and using a proven model that’s been replicated across the country where it has resulted in higher high school graduation rates and lower crime rates.”
With qualifying cases being handled outside the traditional court setting, students don’t acquire a criminal record and judicial resources are freed up to focus on more dangerous offenses. Elementary school students are not included in the Agreement due to their age.
The Agreement is based on a model piloted in Clayton County in 2002 that resulted in an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in juvenile crime. Communities across the nation have replicated the model and achieved similar success.
“This Agreement has the potential to improve the quality of life for everyone in Peach County. In addition to reducing crime, we’ll have more students staying in school until graduation,” Cooke said. “Having a trained work force and lower crime will influence more businesses to come here. But most importantly, our children will have the helping hand they need to grow into healthier, successful adults to raise the next generation.”
A similar agreement — the Macon-Bibb County School-Justice Partnership — was signed in July 2018. In its first year, 207 middle and high school students who otherwise may have been arrested were instead referred to services. Only 10 students committed a second qualifying offense during the rest of the school year.
Partners who signed the agreement include: Peach County Schools, Peach County Juvenile Court, Macon Judicial Circuit Superior Court, Macon Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, Macon Judicial Circuit Public Defender’s Office, Peach County Sheriff’s Office, Fort Valley Department of Public Safety, Byron Police Department, and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
Speaking during the ceremony, signing partners said the following:
Peach County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lionel Brown said when he thinks about the PEACH Pride Partnership, he thinks about several former students who could have been helped if a similar program had been in place. “If this had been in place for those children back in the day, they probably would have taken a different career path,” he said. “It does take a village to raise a child. They may not be our children by birth, but when they come to our school system … we feel like they belong to us.”
“We are committed and dedicated to making this school system the best that it can possibly be,” said Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese. “I’m really looking forward to what this program does for our children. … This takes really a common sense approach and we target these young, minor, first-time offenders and we give them the resources to succeed.”
Chief Peach County Juvenile Court Judge Thomas Matthews said, “I’m confident that with this we will get better results, better children and a better community.”
Macon Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Jeffery Monroe said, “I think this program is about alternatives … instead of narrowing opportunities, it is creating and expanding opportunities.” He said the children served by the partnership are those that judges “would like to have some other outcome and from the program, the menu of services that are out there, we hope and sincerely desire that they will be plugged into those and that they will profit from them as well.”
“I’m also happy to see the pendulum swing in the right direction regarding juvenile justice,” said Macon Judicial Circuit Public Defender Rick Waller. “When dealing with children, that’s when we have the chance to make the greatest impact. A lot of the time, by the time we see someone in Superior Court, it might be too late.”
“What you’re seeing right now is us using this platform to address systemic issues not only in Fort Valley, but in Peach County,” said Fort Valley Department of Public Safety Director Lawrence Spurgeon. “This is us changing and growing in a positive direction. … Anytime you can tell me that I can make my community a safer place … we’re all for it.”
Byron Police Chief Wesley Cannon said, “This is what we’ve been doing all along. It’s just structuring what we’ve been doing. And it’s giving professionals an opportunity to step into these children’s lives. … I believe with this community and the partnerships we create with this, it will undoubtedly be a success.”
Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Chief of Staff Sean Hamilton said roughly half the children in Georgia detention centers last fiscal year and 70 percent of children in the department’s long-term facilities, were on a mental health case load. In 2018, half of all children in the department’s care had a substance abuse disorder. “This type of program will help catch these issues early on and hopefully keep young people from penetrating the deepest ends of the juvenile justice system. Early intervention by the local government and the community is just what the state needs to help reduce juvenile justice incarceration and recidivism.”
To view a copy of the Agreement, click here.
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Contact: Amy Leigh Womack