Now that a bill allowing for more discretion among juvenile court judges has been filed with the Georgia House of Representatives, it may be an uphill battle for the sponsor of another bill pushing for the creation of a juvenile parole board.
Nearly two weeks ago Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member, introduced Senate Bill 105, which would establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).
“With limited financial resources and the severe overcrowding in our jails, we must begin looking at alternatives to incarceration,” said Sen. Jones of the measure, now awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This bill is aimed at juvenile offenders who have committed only designated felonies.”
The main challenge ahead for Sen. Jones may be the fact that another measure dubbed the “good behavior bill” pushing for more discretion among juvenile court judges was also filed late last week. House Bill 373, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have accomplished the terms of his or her sentence for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J Pak (R-Lilburn), has been endorsed by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb)
Both bills were introduced on the heels of Governor Nathan Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by next January. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of adults in the nation, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.
Tom Williams, an assistant district attorney in the Flint Judicial Circuit, has issue with the fact that as drafted, the parole board bill only requires victims and prosecutors to be notified of the child’s parole status 72 within hours of it being granted.
“That’s a significant issue for a district attorney,” Williams said. “I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. It’s not that we are opposed to a deserving child having a mechanism for early release – we know children change a lot – but the vehicle in which that child gets to request early release should be created in collaboration with the different entities involved. That’s what makes SB 127 (the Juvenile Code rewrite bill) so great, because everyone was at the discussion table.”
Williams added that there is “no one opinion shared among prosecutors in Georgia’s 159 counties and 49 judicial circuits,” but his organization welcomes the opportunity to be a part of shaping any legislation that would assist in the early release of rehabilitated juveniles.
DJJ representatives are being tight-lipped about their support of Sen. Jones’s measure.
“We support any legislation that the governor has said he will go ahead with,” DJJ Spokeswoman Scheree Moore said last week, noting that the agency “supports the legislative process” and will support. Sen. Jones’s legislation “if he gets it passed.”
A representative from the juvenile judges council has confirmed that the organization has not formally reviewed the parole board legislation. Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said he understands why the council has endorsed HB 373.
“It gives the judges more discretion, whereas the parole board measure actually takes away some discretion,” said Judge Teske, a former president of the organization. “It puts the decision of what kid get released into the hands of the executive branch.”
“Both sides agree that kids who have been incarcerated and have accomplished their goals and are rehabilitated should not remain incarcerated,” Judge Teske said.
“At that point we would be causing harm and warehousing rehabilitated kids,” he said. “The question is how do we accomplish that? I think we should go forward with [HB 373], test it out and see how it works and collect data on it. It can achieve the same results as the parole board; the consistent, fair release of children.”
Data collection is required, he said, if the good behavior measure does not work, the parole board idea could be revisited.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-30) has not yet called a hearing for the parole board measure, but it is receiving some bi-partisan support. Senator John B. Crosby (R-Tifton), a co-signer of the parole board bill, said he supports the measure and its “new approach” to juvenile justice in Georgia.
“If kids are going to change or desire to get rehabilitated they’re probably going to make that decision soon after incarceration,” said Sen. Crosby, a former juvenile and superior court judge. “This bill creates that opportunity…. It gives those who work in the juvenile justice arena some flexibility to work with.”
Governor Deal has received a copy of the bill and “has not come out in opposition to it,” Sen. Jones said. He echoed, Sen. Crosby’s sentiments. “A rehabilitation-focused approach to juvenile justice will help improve our public safety while also saving taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We need to break the cycle and intervene when young people break the law.”
Sen. Crosby emphasized that he does not support early release for violent offenders, but he sees the parole board as a great way to encourage rehabilitation.
“When you have mandatory sentencing and a child must stay the entire length of time, it doesn’t give much hope,” he said. “If he knew his behavior would help him get out that would be great motivation and also makes for safer detention centers. I’m not in support of mandatory minimums. We need to leave that discretion up to the judges elected by the people.”
Sen. Jones, who passed another bill last year that curbs the abuse of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools, said that the overall purpose of the legislation is to help children become productive members of society.
“Young people can turn their lives around for the better and this bill provides a mechanism for them to do that and move forward with their lives,” he said.
Here’s what we know about SB 105:
· Panel members would be appointed by the DJJ commissioner and would decide which designated felons are eligible for parole.
· If granted parole, juveniles would remain under the supervision of the DJJ until their maximum sentence expires.
· Only those who have demonstrated good conduct and completed the educational and program requirements will be considered.
· The panel would also be responsible for any parole violations; aiding parolees in finding employment and determining which designated felons are fit for relief from the panel.
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.