Juvenile Justice, Criminal Justice Reform On Governor Deal’s Radar, Policy Staffers Say

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Criminal justice reform – including juvenile justice – is among Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s top priorities during his tenure, according to a key member of his policy staff.

“As a former juvenile judge this is certainly one of his passions,” said Public Safety Policy Advisor David Werner during the “A Conversation with the Governor's Policy Staff” event hosted Wednesday by the non-profit Voices for Georgia’s Children. “His son is also a juvenile court judge in Hall County.”

The governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Erin Hames and Health Policy Advisor Blake Fulenwider also participated in the forum attended by about 85 representatives from child advocacy organizations at the Georgia Freight Depot building.

Werner said the bi-partisan commission Gov. Deal assembled earlier this year to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by January will likely step up its efforts starting next month. The effort is being led by the Pew Research Center.

“There has been talk of breaking down into committees and juvenile justice could be one of them,” he said. “We haven’t defined it all yet.”

The commission is charged with providing solutions to Georgia’s high incarceration rate, the fourth highest in the country. Alternatives to incarceration and a review of Georgia’s mandatory sentencing are among the topics the group will review.

“I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal told JJIE.org shortly after announcing the initiative at the state capitol in February. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”

During the event, Werner also mentioned that the governor’s staff “looks forward to working with” the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and other child-focused organizations on Georgia’s longstanding juvenile code rewrite.

In March, representatives from the Barton Center and Voices confirmed that the rewrite, Senate Bill 127, a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law, has received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.”

“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 on the measure.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Werner echoed a similar sentiment when asked about Georgia’s reform effort.

“We need to change the way we look at criminal justice,” he said. “We need to look at making some changes in regard to sentencing and rehabilitation.”

Many attendees at the Voices forum, including Barton’s Policy Director, Kirsten Widner, applauded the governor’s policy staff for participating in the event.

“It’s great to have a governor who has made his office so accessible,” she said. “I was glad to hear them speak specifically about the juvenile code rewrite.”

Jeanetta Alexander, with the Parent Training Information Center, which trains parents on issues including bullying and educational opportunities, said she wanted to hear more specifics on some of the governor’s policies, but she was pleased overall with the event.

“I’m glad that governor Deal has given this opportunity for us to hear from his staff,” she said. This was a great opportunity. It was really good."

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