As the New Legislative Session Begins, One Bill Looms Above the Rest

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Monday marks the first day of the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly and while many bills will be considered and debated on the floor of the state Capitol, for those interested in juvenile justice, one piece of legislation gets all of the attention. The juvenile code rewrite, in the form of two separate bills, SB 127 in the state Senate and HB 641 in the House, was reintroduced last year, working its way through various committees and stakeholder meetings.

This year, advocates are guardedly optimistic the code rewrite, officially known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, will pass the Legislature and land on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk for a signature.

“That’s our objective,” said Voices for Georgia’s Children Executive Director Pat Willis. “We have great support from the sponsors and committees where the tough work gets done.”

But, there is still work to be done, says Julia Neighbors, JUSTGeorgia Project Manager at Voices for Georgia’s Children and a lead on the code rewrite.

“It’s not a done deal,” she said. “For the advocates that want to see this happen, our work is still not done.”

Advocates for revision of the code argue that changes need to be made to the current law to address everything from legal representation of children, to juveniles being charged as adults for certain crimes to, restoring judicial discretion to both judges and prosecutors.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is also working with lawmakers and stakeholders to refine the code rewrite, according to a statement by DJJ spokesperson Jim Shuler.

“The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice continues to work with our partners to pursue a positive legislative agenda for 2012,” Shuler said in the statement. “The juvenile code re-write bills that are currently proposed, although they represent many improvements, still include some areas that leave room for clarification. DJJ will continue to work with all parties to resolve those legislative issues for this session.”

Sen. Bill Hamrick first introduced legislation containing the code rewrite in 2009 and reintroduced the bill in 2011 after review and revisions by legislators and stakeholders. In 2011, Rep. Wendell Willard introduced a similar bill into the House.

The code rewrite is based on a proposed model code developed by the Young Lawyers Division of the Georgia State Bar and includes significant input from stakeholders and the public. Lead agencies include JUSTGeorgia and Georgia Appleseed. The juvenile code handles everything from delinquency and truancy to abused and neglected children, Willis said.

“It’s about children from birth until age 17 and the issues they encounter as they are referred to the juvenile courts,” she said.

The code, she continued, “is the place where we really spell out how we respect children. It’s all spelled out in the code.”

The offices of the Governor and the Speaker of the House were also very cooperative, Willis said.

According to Neighbors, stakeholders were also vital to the process.

“We have had tremendous input from stakeholders,” Neighbors said. “Advocates have been meeting with stakeholders since April in preparation for the upcoming legislative session.”

And as the General Assembly meets again, the code rewrite continues to be refined, she said.

“This is not the time to be silent,” she said. “It’s important to talk to legislators and juvenile court judges and tell them why it’s important to you.”

Advocates aren’t the only ones hoping the bill will pass this year. Rep. Willard, who introduced the House version of the bill is also optimistic, according to a staff member who wished to remain anonymous because she is not authorized to speak on the subject.

Following a recommendation from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission that released its report in late 2011, there has been some speculation whether the Legislature might establish a permanent Criminal Justice Oversight Commission that could also be tasked with a review of Georgia’s juvenile justice system.

However, that legislation is unlikely because, according to Rep. Willard’s staff member, other juvenile justice legislation is “being held back so that lawmakers and stakeholders can focus on the code rewrite.”

Prefiling of bills in the General Assembly began Nov. 15, 2011. So far, no new juvenile justice legislation has been filed.

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