I would like to take a few minutes to state my thoughts on the status of Georgia’s juvenile code revision and the course of action I intend to follow. The short version is, I see no point in continuing with the “stakeholder meeting” approach to reaching a compromise on the proposed bill, HB641.
I intend to work diligently to see this bill never sees the light of day. We have spent seven years trying to be heard about our serious reservations about the Proposed Model Code (PMC), and the document, now in its third iteration, still is flawed.
Keep in mind we, as judges, special assistant attorney generals, CASA’s, guardians ad litems, district attorneys and public defenders had no input into the initial draft. The Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ), the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) were likewise left out of the process. The bill is still promoted by the advocacy groups as something CJCJ asked the Young Lawyer Division (YLD) to draft and that we and other stakeholders have but a few minor concerns. (The fact that I have made approximately 150 edits to my copy of the bill is proof otherwise.)
Please note that the original Younger Lawyer Division PMC has been hijacked by the Barton Clinic, JUST Georgia, Georgia Appleseed and the Georgia Association of Counsel for Children. CJCJ, the district attorneys, public defenders, children and parent’s attorneys, DJJ, DFACS and others have been marginalized.
HB641 is currently being vetted in three separate but interrelated forums: the Legislature, the state bar and stakeholders meetings. We should not fall into the trap that we can only get input through the stakeholders meetings. This is a mechanism that the advocacy groups are using to try to control the process. Admittedly we can appear to be obstructionist by not participating, but at this point I intend to be just that.
There are major problems with the PMC for which there is no quick fix. First, the bill introduces radical policy changes to Georgia. Child directed counsel is just the most obvious. It assumes that if only the child were in charge of the conduct of their case, outcomes for children would improve. It ignores the underlying principal of Juvenile Courts that children are not competent to decide what is in their best interest. It seeks to comply with Federal law by saying each child shall have a guardian ad litem, either a lawyer or CASA, but then prohibiting the lawyer/GAL from practicing law. Worst of all, it places the complex legal and emotional decisions in the hands of the most fragile participants in the system.
Other areas to consider include the definition section which completely redefines what a family is in Georgia. The bill goes on to severely restrict judicial discretion by requiring hearings and orders on the most mundane task such as granting a continuance. It also attempts to regulate the practice of law by GAL’s, not a popular idea with the Bar.
I agree with what many have said about cost not being the driving factor in determining what is best. (In Gwinnett County, we spend almost $2 million a year in this area.) However, why would we favor imposing a system that will cost millions when we already have a system that provides for a child’s voice to be heard, through CASA’s and guardian ad litem attorneys representing the child’s best interest with one that completely strangles advocacy for what is the underlying purpose of the juvenile court?
Why would we support a law that requires a child to consult with an attorney before waiving counsel when there is already someone being paid to determine if the child can and does understand their rights — the judge?
It continues to be a waste of time to go to the stakeholder meetings. As I stated at the state Bar Board of Governors meeting on August, 18, stakeholders are the people like us who do this for a living, comply with state and federal mandates and operate within ever shrinking budgets. Neither do I feel I can appoint myself as spokesperson for the CJCJ, nor it for me. We lawyers must contact our Board of Governors representatives and all of us our legislative delegations and make it clear that this bill has the making of a bad law for the juvenile court judges, lawyers and other professionals who represent children, parents and families and most importantly the children of Georgia.
A Modest Proposal
Keep in mind that the PMC was drafted by two out-of state lawyers at the request of well-intentioned people, most of whom have little or no experience in dealing with the abused, neglected, unruly and delinquent children we see every day. We actually have to address the needs and best interest of these children and families everyday with fewer and fewer resources. The proponents of the PMC have a theoretical approach that fails to comprehend the reality of the dysfunction experienced by most of the children and families that come before us. We must step up and inject a dose of reality and common sense into this legislation.
My proposal is to ask the president of the Georgia State Bar to appoint a committee composed of judges, SAAG’s, district attorney’s, public defenders, lawyers who represent children and parents, DFCS and DJJ representatives to draft a juvenile code we can embrace.
Certainly the reorganizational structure done by the present drafters could serve as a template, but best practices, not theory, needs to be what fleshes out this skeleton.
Opinions vary on the size and scope Georgia’s juvenile code rewrite should undergo. Read Kirsten Widner’s interpretation: Support Proposed Revision of Georgia Juvenile Reform.