After more than five years of drafting, a comprehensive juvenile justice reform bill is expected to appear in the Georgia General Assembly in January, which would give children in the court system access to updated intervention and rehabilitation.
A juvenile justice subcommittee will be formed soon out of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to study adult and child justice codes. The full committee held its first meeting July16, where it heard a background briefing from the Pew Center on the States about juvenile justice in other states. The subcommittee will build on at least five years of work that ended in House Bill 641, a bill that died in the legislature in March.
“We hope to find things to make improvements to the current 641,” said bill author state Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs).
When it died in March, the 246-page bill brought the state’s juvenile justice code up to date with best practices about how to treat juveniles in the court system, whether as defendants, abuse victims or both. It also created a category of juveniles called “children in need of services,” who do things considered unruly, but not quite criminal, such as skipping school, running away from home, or breaking curfew. Those juveniles would be eligible for a state intervention, meant ultimately to channel them away from law breaking.
It’s not yet clear how much HB 641 will be reshaped, but the council may introduce a way to give state credits to cities and counties that operate programs that help keep kids out of state custody, such as after-school supervision or strict probation. “It’s a way to keep kids in the community,” Willard said.
It’s also a model followed in other states like Ohio and Texas, which the council will study in the coming months.
That may very well assuage bill critics like county governments and some of the state’s judicial circuits, which worried that the bill would give them more responsibilities but no extra money, a so-called unfunded mandate.
“That was our issue last session,” said Debra Nesbit, who lobbies for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “That’s kind of what we’re looking for is some state dollars to be invested at the local level,” she added. Nesbit said programs like Willard described are few or nonexistent in many parts of the state.
In the coming months, stakeholders in the bill will gather data on its projected cost. ACCG, the Pew Center on the States, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Georgia’s Legislative Budget Office are all working on getting cost data.
The bill died last year when it became clear that the governor and the legislature “shared concerns we had that we didn’t know a final price. There were multiple cost estimates ranging from four million to $80 million plus,” according to a statement from Stephanie Mayfield, a spokesperson for Gov. Nathan Deal.
The bill sailed through the state House unanimously but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee in March 2012.
A report of data and recommendations is due to Gov. Deal by Dec. 31, according to Mayfield.
“We think there’s substantial savings” in the bill, Willard said, estimating that the state would save $20 million by eliminating short-term detention programs alone. The bill capped detention at 30 days.
The Georgia PTA has been involved in shaping the bill for years. “The PTA’s hope is that 641 is basically reintroduced,” said Karen Hallacy, the Georgia PTA’s legislative chair. “This is another step in making sure children are handled as children as they go through the juvenile justice system.”
The bill has been modified and tweaked over and over during its life, Hallacy pointed out, changing whenever police, courts, judges, advocates or other stakeholders came up with valid points. It’s ended in a good bill, she said: “We’re supportive of the whole thing.”
Willard expects a draft bill no earlier than the beginning of the next legislative session in January 2012.