The next session of the Georgia General Assembly is months away but advocates are busy polishing a major bill that could affect children and their families across the state. In fact, they’ve been working on this legislation—a complete revamp of the state’s juvenile code—since 2004.
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. To be considered in the term that begins next January, it must be reintroduced. Its supporters want to make sure it’s in good shape. “Our goal is to work through the 2009 bill as a draft,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University, “and to have an edited version for the next legislative session.”
“We’re going to take the opportunity to make some technical changes and changes all the stakeholders can agree to,” said Mindy Binderman, director of government affairs and advocacy of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a policy advocacy group.
A hearing on the proposed code is set for June 28 at the Capitol. More meetings and hearings are expected over the summer.
The legislation in the works would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into twelve articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights, and delinquency. New provisions would substantially change how some cases are handled. Among dozens of proposed changes are these:
- A requirement known in shorthand as one judge/one child would provide that, whenever possible, the same judge would handle all cases involving a child, whether deprivation or delinquency.
- Judges could sentence children guilty of designated felonies, such as carjacking or aggravated assault, to as little as six months of restrictive custody instead of a minimum of 12 months, giving them more flexibility.
- The burden of proving that a child is competent to be tried would fall on the state, rather than requiring the child to prove incompetence.
- Status offenders—juveniles who commit offenses such as running away or truancy that are considered crimes only for juveniles, not adults—would fall under the new category of Children in Need of Services. Emphasis would be on getting to the cause of the problem rather than on punishment.
Under the proposed code revision, a multi-disciplinary team would work with the child’s family under the presumption that children don’t run away unless something is wrong at home, and aren’t chronically truant if school is going well. “It’s looking at the child in context,” said Widner. “How can we help this child be more successful?”
Some provisions have already changed in a process that began six years ago when the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, asked for a rewrite of the juvenile code. 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 to meet its public in 2008. In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code.
And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code. Through Georgia Appleseed, lawyers from some of the state’s top firms canvassed Georgia’s ten judicial districts, interviewing hundreds of “stakeholders,” from judges to juvenile delinquents and their victims. The results were reported in “Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code,” released by Georgia Appleseed in November, 2008.
“We found a huge consensus that the code is broken and needed to be fixed,” said Widner of the Barton Center, “and some consensus about how to fix it but not as much.”
The research, and later feedback on the model code, came into play in writing the legislation that became Senate Bill 292, introduced by Senator Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) and 23 co-sponsors in April, 2009. To increase chances for a smooth passage, some provisions were dropped or altered between the model code and the senate bill. The model code, for instance, said all cases involving children 13 to 17 years old would start in juvenile court—even those involving the so-called “seven deadly sins,” felonies that now automatically go to superior court—although cases could be transferred to superior court. Critics expressed concern that the move would mean being softer on serious crime. “That was probably one of the most hotly discussed reforms of the model code,” Widner said. The provision was removed. “Leaving it in at this time might have killed the bill,” she said.
Some widely supported changes could be hard to implement because of increased costs at a time when the state budget is shrinking because of reduced revenues. Advocates have already made some tough choices.
One provision said a child would be considered a juvenile in delinquency matters to age 18—up from 17 in the current code. The change would have brought delinquency law into line with deprivation law, which covers children to age 18. But the age in the senate bill was left at 17 because of concerns that the juvenile justice system would be unable to handle the potential influx of older offenders. “We very much at JUSTGeorgia believe in that change,” said Widner, “but it’s an expensive change. Even though the long-term cost would probably be significantly lower because it would cut down recidivism, it would require a shift of funds to juvenile court.”
In a 2008 response to the model code, a representative of the state Department of Juvenile Justice estimated that adding 17-year-olds would increase the population of juvenile offenders by as much as 30 percent, at a cost of $83- to $124 million a year. Capital costs would also be incurred to add space to juvenile facilities, the department’s response said. “We didn’t disagree philosophically with the idea,” said Rob Rosenbloom of the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We just let people know what the budgetary impact would be.”
One controversial proposal was modified in the hope of picking up support. Under the model code, a child could not waive the right to an attorney. The Senate bill, intended as a compromise, would allow a child to turn down representation—but only after talking to a lawyer. Still the provision raises concerns. “I think a child’s having an attorney is always a good thing,” said Judge Bryant Henry. Henry is President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia. “An attorney is an independent party who can assess what’s going on. But what if the parents don’t want to hire an attorney? . . .One of the practical effects of that is going to be the responsibility that’s going to impose on the public defender’s office. It’s a good idea, but it’s going to have some financial ramifications.”
The JUSTGeorgia team is proud of the way the proposed rewritten code is being handled, although the process is slow and sometimes messy. “The whole concept was to get some consensus among stakeholders that changes should be made, and what those changes were, before the bill was introduced,” said Binderman. “We continually meet with stakeholders of different opinions to get their buy-in.”
Expected heavy turnover under the gold dome next session will present advocates of the new code with yet another challenge. “While we’re optimistic,” said Binderman, “we know we have a big road ahead just to keep educating legislators about the change.”
Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts