New Georgia Juvenile Code Advancing in State Legislature

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ga state house squareA long-planned overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice code got its first official nod of approval Wednesday, but backers still haven’t figured out how to pay for it.

An estimated $15 million price tag is attached to the proposed Child Protection and Public Safety Act, sponsored by state Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), whose committee gave the bill a “do-pass” without dissent. Gov. Nathan Deal did not include that cost in the coming year’s budget so, Hamrick said, supporters pushed the effective date of the bill back a year — to July 2013 — to buy the time to find funding for it.

“We have got to work on that with the House and the governor,” Hamrick said. Some government agencies were objecting to taking on new programs that they couldn’t pay for, he said, “so now it really seems to be how are we going to fund it.”

The bill would modernize and reorganize state laws addressing delinquent and neglected children, giving the state new resources to deal with both groups and with a third — unruly children, including so-called “status offenders” — who often fall in between the two. Some status offenders — whose only offense may be truancy, drinking alcohol or other behavior that is not criminal for an adult — wind up in state juvenile detention facilities with violent, older offenders despite a federal prohibition.

Hamrick’s bill would establish a new classification for juveniles — Children in Need of Services, or CHINS — to provide those unruly children with a wide range of services. CHINS kids and their parents would have access to tutoring, counseling, anger management and other mental health services.

The state Department of Human Services has agreed to coordinate those programs, which are estimated to cost $7 million a year, once the money is placed in the state budget.

A second significant cost — funding for local district attorneys to prosecute offenses in juvenile courts — could run up to $8 million, Hamrick said. But that’s a conservative estimate, he said, and “it may be possibly a lot less than that.”

The bill would also establish a mediation procedure for many conflicts now heard in juvenile courts, which could save the state money, he noted.

Hamrick is attempting to defuse money issues for a third agency, the Public Defenders Standards Council, by removing language requiring that it represent teenagers in juvenile courts across Georgia. One estimate said that duty would cost the agency $370,000 a year.

Juvenile defendants will still be entitled to a lawyer but, under the Senate bill, the cost would be borne by local jurisdictions. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), retains that mandate for the public defender council.

Hamrick’s bill also drops a provision that would have required “sight and sound separation” in juvenile detention facilities between youth who have only been accused of a crime and those who have been adjudicated and committed to DJJ custody. That requirement would have required costly construction at many youth jails and prisons and, in the words of a senior DJJ official, was considered a “deal-breaker.”

Wednesday’s vote represented a landmark for many proponents of the bill. Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, choked up a little as she reflected on the committee’s support.

“I’ve been working on this thing for five years,” Widner said. “This is the first time it’s gotten a vote.”

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