Georgia’s long-awaited Juvenile Code rewrite— the first in four decades — is inching closer to completion.
Some key stakeholders involved in shaping the legislation are scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to hammer out more details in Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. Many of the issues slated for discussion were raised at a Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) hearing at the state capitol Monday.
“We’ve had a positive start to the session and this hearing is just a part of finishing up the vetting of this bill,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit helping to lead the rewrite effort. “Today was a good day. We are getting closer to the completion of this bill.”
Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner briefed the committee on the many changes that have been made to it since its prior life as SB 292. That piece of legislation 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. Supporters said they are optimistic the current bill will get passed swiftly.
“I am thrilled to hear the support of the committee; all parties are much closer together in terms of our agreement on the core issues,” said Widner. “I think we’re well positioned to get this bill passed. I appreciate everyone’s commitment to the process. We’ve all been at the table working together on this. I look forward to meeting with the stakeholders later this week.”
Widner, of the Barton Center, joined representatives from the Prosecuting Attorneys‘ Council of Georgia and Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL) — all organizations that have participated in shaping the bill— in presenting information before the committee chaired by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton).
The fact that the current draft does not endow superior court judges with the power to review the details of a case and transfer it back to juvenile court was debated heavily in Monday’s hearing. GACDL, which represents public defenders, also raised another concern dealing with sex offenders.
“We support the bill as is, but we would like to see sex offenses removed from the list of charges that are mandatory transfers to superior court,” explained Sandra Michaels, a lobbyist for the organization. “Those types of cases are very fact specific; they are more like mental health crimes that merit treatment as opposed to punishment.”
DeKalb County defense attorney Gina Mangham said she hopes all changes related to SB 440 and SB 441 , how children get charged as adults and what sentences they receive, gets approved. “Clearly more work needs to be done on this, but this rewrite is a step in the right direction,” she said. “This rewrite does a better job of dealing with the underlying issues that delinquent children face. Most of the kids who get prosecuted as adults are children of color, so this disproportionately affects our community. As an advocate, you have to be concerned about that.”
Defense attorney Viveca Famber Powell agreed.
“I’m glad that they’re considering other options for delinquent children other than prison,” said Famber Powell, a former supervisor for Fulton County Court’s juvenile unit. “That’s not to say that they should just go free, but it’s great that we are finally looking at other options like supervision and rehabilitation as opposed to just punishment.”
Famber Powell, too, said she is optimistic that the “gargantuan task” of rewriting Georgia’s juvenile code may finally be nearing an end.
“This new approach will allow us to transform someone who is a drain on society to one who is a benefit to society,” she said. “We can transform people; children can change.”
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.
If passed, the code rewrite would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the SJC and a specially appointed subcommittee reviewed the bill in detail, and a group of stakeholders met to agree on issues that needed refinement in the Act. Through this process, the measure was revised and reintroduced on February 23rd as SB 127, also known as “the Children’s Code.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. 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.