Georgia State Supreme Court Justice Harris Hines is sharing some provocative views about the troubled state of Georgia’s children. During an address earlier this month to a joint meeting of the Covington (Ga.) Kiwanis and Covington Rotary Clubs, Justice Hines proclaimed that children born to unwed mothers is the single most serious problem faced in the state in regards to children. The impact, he says, trickles down into the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems. Justice Hines shared his perspective with JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas.
JJIE: What initially inspired your comments?
Justice Hines: Alcovy [Ga.] Judicial District Court Judge Ken Wynne, a former district attorney, invited me to speak to the joint meeting. I’m not an expert, but I’ve been in the legal system of Georgia since December of 1968. From my perspective, in Georgia we have a major problem with children being born to unwed mothers. The mothers tend to be real young and they tend to face a lot of difficulties with having these children and not having the things that they want [their children] to have. Having children young causes many women to live in poverty and a number of their children end up in foster care. These children, a lot of times, have anger management issues, chronic diseases and many have learning difficulties.
JJIE: You cited a lot of data in your speech, where’d you get the information?
Justice Hines: I received a lot of my information from two people who have done a splendid job of bringing these issues to light. Former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court Leah Ward Sears is no longer on our court – she went back into private practice – but when she was chief justice about three years ago, she established the Georgia Supreme Court’s Commission on Children, Marriage and Family Law. She did a lot of speaking on these issues and brought a lot of attention to them. Another person is Jim Wooten. He has written a lot of op-eds in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In Georgia now we’re running at 38 to 40 percent of all of our births being to unwed mothers. My mother was a public school teacher in Georgia for over 30 years and the research wasn’t there back then. Now we have the empirical data that we need to know about how our children are under stress and how that affects their experiences [growing up]. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that childhood stress can disrupt early brain development, compromise the functioning of the nervous and immune systems and lead to chronic diseases. Former Kennesaw State University President Betty Siegel, who is a psychologist, has said that one’s core values are established early in life. That’s why it is extremely important to address some of these statistics in Georgia early on. We’ve got to prevent our children from growing up in these conditions. It’s having a long-term effect.
JJIE: In your speech you suggested that this trend, if you will, is impacting our criminal justice system. How so?
Justice Hines: Researcher David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, says the single most accurate predictor as to criminal behavior among young men is: is there is a father in the home? Before his death, late Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Sanford Jones, who died way too soon in a plane crash in Alabama in 2009, had tracked 13,000 cases through the Fulton County Juvenile Court system. Of those 13,000, he found that 78 percent of those [youth] either did not know who their father was or did not know where their father was. Children born to young unwed mothers often face extreme difficulties. Former President Bill Clinton’s advisor William Galston said, ‘you need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty. 1) Finish high school; 2) Marry before having a child; 3) Marry after the age of 20.’ Only 8 percent of those who follow these three rules will live ever in poverty at some point in their lives. That means 79 percent of people who fail to do so are poor or live in poverty at some point in their lives. Like I said, we have all the empirical data, we just need to bring these issues to the forefront. That would go a long with eliminating chronic poverty.
JJIE: You’ve quoted a lot of experts, what’s your personal take on this issue?
Justice Hines: I agree with Galston. We need to focus on addressing this problem. Education plays a critical role in this. I think Georgia is doing a better job than it has done in the past in regards to education, but there is room for improvement. We have the empirical data and now we need to focus on the solutions that we know work. I think the new juvenile code that’s expected to get passed in the next legislative session will have a significant impact on improving the lives of Georgia’s children.
JJIE: How do you feel Georgia is doing in regards to educating its young people?
Justice Hines: I think we’re doing a great job educationally on the elementary level and in the university system, but a lot of these issues with teen pregnancy have to do with high school. We need to do a better job there. Prior to the HOPE Scholarship, when 1,600 was the highest you could make on the SAT, only 23 percent of those students who scored between 1,500 and 1,600 remained in the state for their college educations. After HOPE, 76 percent of our highest SAT achievers stayed. We know that 70 percent of those who complete college here will stay in the state after they graduate. We have found a way to address that problem and today we can find a way to address this [unwed mother issue]. We need to continue to educate the public on these issues and concentrate on the things that we already know can help address it.