DALTON, Ga. — Behind the razor-wired fence and red brick walls, a semicircle of students formed around Georgia first lady Sandra Deal and other state officials. A teenage girl's hand shot up.
"Do you believe people can change?" she asked Deal.
"Of course," Deal replied. "[But] we have to find a way to change."
As part of tour with the Georgia Juvenile Justice Department to examine how juvenile offenders are educated behind locked doors, Deal visited the Elbert Shaw Regional Youth Detention Center on Wednesday morning. This was the first time Deal has visited the department's education district since becoming first lady.
"It's a shame that so often [juveniles] end up spending a long time in the prison system," Deal said. "We want to encourage them to not let one bad decision dominate their lives."
The Dalton Center -- one of 26 juvenile facilities in the state -- received national attention in 2009 as one of the top facilities in the country. Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner asked Deal to visit to see how the agency works.
As the Legislature eyes a juvenile justice overhaul, state officials who visited Dalton said they also are looking at the education system within these detention facilities and trying to encourage juveniles to use existing programs to better themselves.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers unanimously passed a bill that would rewrite the juvenile justice code.
As part of the rewrite, a new state agency would be formed to oversee juveniles who are considered low or no risk and try to keep more of these teens, known as status offenders, out of youth detention centers.
Buckner agrees that would be good for the state, saying, "It could free up bed space for more troubled teens."
But she said she isn't sure if the state has an adequate number of group homes or other alternatives for the offenders.
Currently, the Dalton detention center has a waiting list of up to six months, officials said. But plans are to open the Atlanta Youth Detention Center, an 80-bed facility, by April, Buckner said.
Several detention students said the Dalton detention center is preparing them to make good decisions and not repeat past crimes.
"I feel like God brought me here to keep me off the struggling path," said a 16-year-old boy from Dalton. Juvenile offenders couldn't be identified.
Several teenagers asked Deal if she thought juveniles should be locked up.
"Unfortunately it has to be for their own safety sometimes to help them," she said.
But Deal agreed that more options like mentor programs could make offenders less likely to stay in the prison system.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...