Governor Deal, Lawmakers Commit To Juvenile Code Rewrite Vote In 2012

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Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — will likely be ready for a vote in the next legislative session thanks to support from Gov. Nathan Deal and some in the Georgia House and Senate leadership, according to two non-profits involved in the drafting of the legislation.

“The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Representatives from the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and Voices for Georgia’s Children, said, this week that the Act, Senate Bill 127, received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” Voices lists the legislation's current status as "in the Senate Judiciary Committee" with "general support from the Governor's office as well as the office of the Speaker."

“From the beginning, this process has been a great example of how to build good, thoughtful and effective legislation,” said sponsor Senator Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). “We have had buy-in from all the players: from the courts to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, service providers, youth and families; pretty much every interested party.”

JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that includes Voices and Barton along with non-profit Georgia Appleseed, has led the rewrite effort as a vehicle to improve Georgia’s juvenile laws and the underlying social service systems. Barton’s Policy Director Kirsten Widner and Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney contend that the rewrite is the culmination of more than four years of research and consensus building to solve dilemmas faced by children, families, courts, detention facilities and taxpayers. SB 127, they said, is based on data-driven “best practices,” with an eye to timeliness and fiscal responsibility.

Governor Deal expressed support for dramatic criminal justice system reform at a news conference earlier this year.

It is unclear which specific Georgia Senators or Representatives have expressed support in readying the measure for the 2012 session, but Gov. Deal’s support is clear. A former juvenile court judge, he told JJIE.org earlier this year that juvenile justice should be a component of his new bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. “I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal said after a February news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.” And in a meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, Deal stated that he is willing to reassess laws that require or allow children to be prosecuted as adults and serve their time in adult prisons.

SB 127 would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into 12 articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as dependency (now referred to as deprivation), termination of parental rights and delinquency. New provisions would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear.
The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation.  Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready for the public in 2008.  In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

SB 127 had a prior life as SB 292 when it was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced this session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.

Some of the many key changes in the drafts from SB 292 to SB 127 include:

  • “Deprivation” cases, those involving children who have been taken under the court’s protection due to abuse or neglect, are referred to as “dependency” cases, in line with the terminology used in the 49 other states.
  • The age at which a child could be held to have committed a designated felony is lowered from 14 to 13.
  • “Smash and Grab” burglaries are added to the list of designated felonies as a result of HB 1104.
  • First time minor weapons at school infractions are excluded from the definition of designated felony as a result of SB 299.
  • There is more flexibility in the system of services that the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is required to provide for all eligible children.
  • The definition of emotional abuse was updated to include significant risk of harm in addition to actual harm.
  • The definition of children in need of services (CHINS) was updated by:

o   Adding cross references for truancy and runaway provisions, and

o   Eliminating underage sex as grounds for alleging that a child is in need of services.

  • The definition of dependent child has been clarified to require not only that the child has been abused and neglected, but is also in need of the protection of the court.

Since the Act was first introduced in April 2009, there have been 11 public hearings to educate the legislature and the public about the proposed changes, as well as numerous stakeholder meetings to resolve those issues where disagreement existed.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. 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.

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