Lorena Padron, 18, and Maria Calderon, 19, were all smiles this afternoon as they flanked Governor Nathan Deal in his office.
With a stroke of a pen, the governor signed HB 373 into law, giving both of them and thousands of others with a track record of good behavior and academic success in Georgia’s Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) and Youth Development Centers (YDCs) a chance to substantially reduce their time in custody. Known as the “Good Behavior bill,” the measure passed in the 2011 legislative session that ended last month also gives juvenile court judges more discretion.
“I feel very good, I’m very happy,” said Padron, after the signing ceremony at the state capitol. “I feel like I can begin my life again, like I’ll be able to go home and help my family. Now everybody has hope; an opportunity to show that they can do better.”
Calderon agreed with her fellow Macon YDC peer.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said, of the bill formally endorsed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ). “I would say that it gives us hope that we can show our judge that we deserve to go home. And I have a tough judge.”
Sponsored by state Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) and state Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), the bill allows juvenile court judges to modify the sentences of designated felons committed to DJJ facilities. Currently, there is no provision for judges to modify sentences based on a child’s behavior, academic achievement or rehabilitation status.
“This is not about managing budget constraints, this is about public safety and motivating kids to do better,” insisted DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell. “This gives them a chance to prove that they can change and turn their lives around.”
Rep. Pak called the measure a “step in the right direction” for prison system reform in Georgia.
“It gives juveniles an incentive to behave and get to take advantage of educational opportunities, which is the whole goal of the juvenile justice system,” said Pak. “I hope this results in a lot of juveniles turning their lives around.
He emphasized that the measure is not about being “soft” on crime.
“This doesn’t mean that everyone has the opportunity to get out; only those who are completely rehabilitated will be considered, which is better for everyone overall,” he said. “It is also very cost-effective because it costs $220 a day to house a juvenile compared to $40 a day for an adult inmate.”
Key provisions in the bill, which officially takes effect July 1, include:
- It allows judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release.
- A motion can only be filed after the child has served a year in custody and cannot be re-filed more than once a year.
- Good behavior and academic achievement will weigh heavily in the child’s favor.
- DJJ will make recommendations, but the juvenile court judge assigned to the case will have the final say.
- The victim and prosecuting attorney will be notified within 14 days of the child’s scheduled hearing date.
“The victim will have the opportunity to participate in the hearing,” added Rep. Pak. “They will have the chance to have their voices heard too.”
Commissioner Howell said DJJ will play a key role in “guiding the process” of ensuring the bill’s implementation.
“One thing that’ll be important is making sure that the stakeholders understand what tools are being given to them,” said supporter Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), who during the last session introduced statewide prison reform legislation backed by the governor. “We’ll have to make sure that the juvenile court judges understand the flexibility being given to them.”
Gov. Deal signed the bill during a small afternoon ceremony attended by Padron, Calderon and representatives from DJJ and CJCJ, along with legislative sponsors and other supporters.
“This is HB 373, right,” the governor inquired to the crowd packed inside his office.
“Yes it is,” Commissioner Howell responded, with a broad smile. A hush fell over the room as Gov. Deal, seated as his desk, scribbled his signature.
“This is a very good day for DJJ, that’s why everyone’s being so quiet,” quipped Commissioner Howell, eliciting laughter.
Afterwards Calderon and Padron posed for pictures on the capitol steps and gushed about their first ever visit to the state capitol.
Sen. McKoon said their presence was very important.
“It was a good feeling seeing those young women today,” he said. “It’s no longer abstract when you see the real people who are affected by this. It’s a good feeling to know that this provides incentives for them to have good behavior and to pursue academic achievement.”
Calderon admitted that she was nervous during the visit to the governor’s office.
“My hands was sweating,” she said, with a giggle.
By the end of the event, however, she said her nervousness faded into excitement.
“I’m going to stay positive and strive for success no matter what I do,” added Calderon. “I’m just going to pray everything goes well with this bill.”