The introduction of a long-awaited juvenile code rewrite in the state Senate earlier in the day added to the celebratory mood of an evening reception held in honor of Governor Nathan Deal’s nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies.
Many child advocacy organizations turned out for the event hosted by Voices for Georgia's Children.
The Blue Room at the Georgia Freight Depot was all abuzz with the news that Sen. Bill Hamrick’s (R-30) SB 127 was likely headed to a Judiciary Committee hearing, possibly as soon as next week. “We are thrilled to know that it has been introduced,” said Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner. The organization was actively involved in drafting the legislation. “We feel that the work we’d done over the summer with our stakeholders has led to a much stronger bill. It involves some compromises among our key stakeholders and we are glad to have Sen. Hamrick as our sponsor. The Judiciary Committee has been very supportive and all of the members have signed on as co-signers of the bill.”
Even the governor weighed in after he briefly introduced his “2011 Leadership Team For Children.” Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell, Department of Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese, Governor’s Office for Children & Families Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke and Office of the Child Advocate Director Tonya Boga were among the honorees. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the final version, but I look forward to seeing what they recommend that we do,” the governor said of the measure. “As a former juvenile court judge, I certainly see the value in ensuring that our juvenile justice system is functioning properly.”
Commissioner Howell echoed a similar sentiment. “The juvenile code rewrite certainly has the potential to dramatically impact what we do,” Howell said. She’d represented DJJ in stakeholders meetings during her previous tenure as Deputy Commissioner. “I look forward to having the opportunity to read the current version of the bill. I really appreciate how the stakeholders have responded to the feedback on it. I am optimistic that the current version will reflect our new thoughts about the juvenile system. I look forward to participating in the process.”
Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children Executive Director Normer Adams said the legislation is long overdue. “The new code is much more proactive in regards to public safety and better ensures that children get the services that they need, rather than criminalizing normal adolescent behaviors,” he said. “That’s the best part.”
Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Sharon Hill agreed. “The current version, just improves due process for kids; it gives an opportunity to provide more justice for children and families,” said Hill, a former judge. “Clarity, consistency and fairness will lead to due process for kids.”
Hill said she is impressed with the bill’s rapid progression since the rewrite began in 2004. “For it to be this far along in this amount of time is remarkable,” she said. “It’s a natural consequence to the broad outreach to the stakeholders.”
A new code — the first in four decades — was introduced in 2009, as The Child Protection and Public Safety Act, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. With an outgoing governor, the timing was likely not quite right, Hill said. She’s now hopeful that having a new administration in place will be an asset to SB 127. Governor Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms, she said, could also be a plus. “With the leadership team in place now there’s going to be a new freshness to it that will give it some momentum to get passed,” she said. “We hope that it will also provide some momentum for it to be implemented. That’s the hard part.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.