The 246-page bill has cleared the state House and is expected to come before the full Senate this week, possibly Tuesday, with only minor changes. Gov. Nathan Deal’s office continues to crunch the numbers to help him decide whether the state budget can absorb the expense.
“We have solid support in the General Assembly, and we are hopeful the governor will support it as well,” said Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “If he’s not on board, you can’t achieve the goals of the legislation.”
The new code, which updates and reorganizes decades of laws addressing delinquency and deprivation cases, would authorize a broad range of services for so-called “Children in Need of Services,” who often fall through the cracks now and wind up in the juvenile justice system. The annual cost of those programs, and others to help foster children, is projected to be about $6.4 million.
The disagreements focus on the bill’s requirement for prosecutors — a role often filled now by probation or intake officers — in any Juvenile Court proceeding where a youth faces detention. Those accused youth, who often waive the right to an attorney now, would also be guaranteed the chance to consult an attorney before deciding whether to waive representation.
Agencies that would provide the lawyers to prosecute and defend youths say court-related costs could top $20 million a year. Advocates pushing the bill estimate those annual expenses will run no more than $8.9 million, perhaps much less.
Much of the money in that higher estimate would help address existing needs, not new requirements of the bill, Widner said.
“We have an underfunded system and people see this as an opportunity to recoup some of the funds that are missing,” she said. “We’re already doing these things. It’s not that new.”
Under current law, though, district attorneys must handle juvenile cases only if a judge asks. Prosecutors argue that it’s unrealistic to expect county governments, particularly in rural areas, to shoulder the cost of what they label an unfunded mandate.
“The counties are struggling mightily … and they’re simply not going to do it,” said Kermit McManus, a retired district attorney from northwest Georgia who lobbies for the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council.
Sponsors of the legislation have delayed the effective date of the new code to July 2013 — a one-year reprieve. They are seeking passage of the bill now and asking state and local court officials to have faith that the money will follow.
Prosecutors say they’ve heard similar promises before for state funding of mental health and other community-based programs for troubled youth.
“That’s never happened – anywhere,” McManus said. “If the state says it will provide the money, we believe it’s never going to happen.”
Even in courts that already have prosecutors, the district attorneys say they’ll need more money. Fulton County DA Paul Howard, for instance, said he would need three times as much as the $850,000 that the county set aside for his office’s Juvenile Court work this year. That would pay the salaries of five more attorneys, six investigators, two victim advocates and 12 support staffers.
In neighboring Douglas County, the district attorney’s office stopped handling Juvenile Court prosecutions in the 1990s due to other demands. Now, Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said, the county pays an attorney to prosecute those cases.
For about $85,000 a year, Walker said, the arrangement is less than ideal.
“He does everything,” she said. “He does filings, he does petitions, he does investigations, he does service of the subpoenas.”
District Attorney David McDade estimates he would need an additional $386,000 to assume those duties, an amount that the judge said is not unreasonable.
“He’s looking at breaking out those functions the way they are typically broken out in a district attorney’s office,” she said.
The judge acknowledged those expenses are not mandated by House Bill 641, even though “we would love to see that kind of funding.”
Advocates point out that the bill would not require that district attorneys handle every Juvenile Court prosecution, but would also allow arrangements like Douglas County has now.
Widner, the Barton Center’s lobbyist, said she understands the anxieties associated with making big changes in the juvenile courts without deciding exactly how to pay for it.
But, she added, “those are budgeting decisions that are made separately from … looking at what the public policy should be.”
At the county level, though, court officials know that those funding decisions will determine whether the new juvenile code is a success.
“Part of the tension here is what’s to be done by the state and what … by the county,” Judge Walker said. “When you’re the person who’s responsible for [implementation], the last thing you want to see happen is a code go into effect without the funding.”