Do We Really Want a New Juvenile Code in Georgia?

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As an attorney and recently retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, it was disappointing that the new comprehensive Georgia juvenile code legislation failed to pass.

Watching many well-intended professionals take years to finalize proposed legislation, only to see it fail due to questions regarding compromised provisions and lack of resources, was disappointing to say the least. To see a forward-thinking adult criminal justice package pass through the Georgia General Assembly within one year, should make all of us wonder about the real reasons for our joint disappointment this past session.

It has been recently announced by Gov. Nathan Deal that juvenile justice will be the new focus of the Special Council on Criminal Justice, which was instrumental in bringing about those need reforms in the adult system.

JUSTGeorgia, the coalition of advocates working for reform in the juvenile system, praised the governor’s move. But hope is not enough without a new approach for those in the juvenile justice system as we look to influence this new effort.

There are many responsibilities within the juvenile justice system and each area focuses on issues that can be difficult, long standing and sometimes frustrating.

Ideally, we should have a system that is designed to recognize the special status of children in our society yet hold them accountable for misbehavior and law breaking. Concepts such as “in the best interest of the child” and “due process” are touchstones but sometimes drive our system in different directions.

What is in the best interest of a child depends on the viewpoint of the person evaluating it. The lines between treatment and punishment, safekeeping and detention often blur. It is the soft lines between the definitions that fuels controversy within the system. The motive and good will of those of us working within the juvenile justice system cannot and should not be challenged.  The nobility of the mission is too great to believe anyone intentionally works against the best interest of youth. So why then do we disagree on the best approach on so many important issues?

An example of this disagreement is found in the failure to convince Georgia lawmakers to pass the juvenile code rewrite legislation this past session.

The primary failure was of the juvenile justice partners to coalesce and provide a strong united front within the General Assembly and to the governor’s Office. Child serving state agencies did not agree on CHINS (Children in Need of Services) section of the new code, prosecutors argued that the costs of serving juvenile courts was not included in the bill and judges could not agree on a way forward.  An honest effort was made by the advocacy groups to bring everyone together, but compromises diluted the legislation and full support of the measure within the juvenile justice community was tepid at best.

Part of the answer lies in the framework that our system is built on.  At the heart of it is a legal system that intentionally is adversarial. It is a system that balances the state interest in enforcement of laws and norms against the individual’s rights. Prosecutors seek justice for victims while defense attorneys seek to protect constitutional rights and advocate for the innocence of the accused. Judges are to strike the balance between the two and apply the law to the facts.  Probation and Corrections administrators enforce the orders of the court and meet treatment needs of the child.

Each of these components of the system has a role to perform and resources dedicated to that role. When the resources do not adequately support the role then tensions escalate within the components of the system. When the performance of one role is perceived to hinder the role of the other then tension enters the system.

A system that agrees on basic principles and what treatment, accountability and punishment look like will be more successful.  No longer should we agree to disagree. We owe it as professionals to work out the issues and respect each other’s role. Ask us only to do the tasks we can do well and where the resources do not match the need then let’s advocate together.

One united juvenile justice voice should be heard in Georgia not a separate call for one component of the system over the others.  Gov. Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice may be taking a fresh look at the juvenile code rewrite, but a unified juvenile system will have a better opportunity to influence the decision process.

Let us resolve to find a forum for this new conversation and be a willing partner to help families help their children.

Robert Rosenbloom is an attorney and retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice with over 30 years of experience in juvenile and criminal justice.

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