Hearings Soon on Georgia Juvenile Justice Overhaul

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Georgia’s 244-page revision to its treatment of juvenile delinquents includes diversion ideas from the likes of Texas and Ohio as well as the idea used in many states of intervening with children before they commit a crime.

House Bill 242 is the sum of months of research, a recommendation report from the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council, and a code update that’s been in the works for several years.

“The governor agreed to have the Council’s recommendations incorporated into what we were doing last year, which involved not only a rewrite of the juvenile code but also some policy changes,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the bill’s sponsor. The attorney has led the years-long work on the existing code.

The key recommendation from the 2012 report from the Council, a blue-ribbon panel of 20 judges, attorneys, legislators and law enforcement, was that low-risk juveniles be kept near home or at home for treatment, restorative justice and other consequences of rule-breaking.

“We’re starting out on a step-by-step progression starting with those counties …  where we find the most juveniles percentage-wise coming into the state for detention,” said Willard, also a member of the Council.

Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, has asked the state legislature to spend $5 million in the year beginning this July for this first pilot set of counties.

This year’s bill also introduces into Georgia the legal phrase “children in need of services.” That’s a concept familiar in some other states and refers to a child who has not been found delinquent, but is acting risky. Georgia’s bill does not define CHINS, and definitions vary in other states. It could include setting fires, heavy truancy or running away from home.

Such youth would be eligible for some preventative programs under HB 242.

The bill also splits juvenile felonies into “A” and “B” classes, separating more serious crimes from less serious ones. That will give courts greater discretion to decide what kind of consequences are better for the youth, said Willard.

The bill’s chance of passage looks promising because so many key players have already endorsed the idea.

Willard chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which will hear the bill as early as Wednesday. Deal has urged the legislature to act on the Council’s report.

And Georgia’s top judge used her annual address to the state legislature to urge passage.

“Just as with adults, we want to reserve our youth prison beds for the most serious offenders while providing alternatives for those who are low-risk and non-violent,” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said in her State of the Judiciary Address on Feb. 7.

Nearly 2,000 youth are in a Georgia facility other than their home, she pointed out. Of those, about 40 percent are considered low risk. About 500 of them are there on misdemeanors or status offenses, things like truancy that wouldn’t be a crime if committed by an adult.

Last year, Willard’s bill stalled on complaints that some judicial circuits could not afford best practices, such as attorneys specializing in juvenile justice.

House Bill 242 backs off some of those provisions.

However, Willard said, “We do mandate, which I think is important, that no child will be allowed to enter a plea to a delinquency charge until they’ve had an opportunity to confer independently with counsel.”

Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, called the bill a “significant milestone.”

The deep study and inclusive process that led to the bill, she said, suggests “that Georgia will ensure that our children have the best opportunity to be on a responsible path to adulthood.”

In a separate move, the state House renamed its Children and Youth Committee the Juvenile Justice Committee, calling its duties “more as a judiciary committee over juvenile related issues.”

At 27 members, it’s a little smaller than the old Children and Youth Committee and the officers are all new to their posts.

That committee has started work on some more modest juvenile justice bills this year.  It approved House Bill 182 that cleans up language giving associate juvenile court judges many of the same powers as a full juvenile court judge. It has also started hearings on House Bill 21, which firms up rules about post-adoption agreements, including making the adopted child a party to that contract.

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