Raphael was just seven years old when his mother brought him from Mexico to Gainesville, Georgia for a good education and better opportunities. But by the time he was 16 his mother was arrested for drugs and deported. He dropped out of school and was working in a factory to support himself and his sister. Because he was brought here illegally, he constantly faced the threat of deportation to a country he knew only as a little boy. Now his mother’s dream for her children is about to be fulfilled. The Division of Family and Children Services learned of his situation and he was referred to Catholic Charities for legal help.
Picture this: Students lay out their school initials in bricks on the outfield of a rival team’s baseball field so the grass underneath dies, leaving a long-term imprint. If the culprits are caught, their punishment could range from a wink and a reprimand to a criminal charge of vandalism. The difference depends on where in Georgia the prank occurs. Some schools and districts punish much more frequently and more severely than others, according to “Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class,” a report released in June by the non-profit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Some districts, for example, impose out-of-school-suspension at a rate 10 to 20 times higher than others. “Perhaps the overarching theme of Georgia’s student discipline law is the strong reliance on local control in the development of overall discipline policies,” says the report, subtitled, “An Assessment of Georgia’s Public School Disciplinary Policies, Practices and Outcomes.” The June release is Phase One of a project expected to be completed in late 2010 in association with JustGeorgia, a statewide juvenile justice coalition formed in 2006.
What is Georgia’s definition of a “child” when it comes to crime? The issue came up Monday at a hearing of the state senate’s Juvenile Code Re-write Subcommittee, which is dealing with a proposed new juvenile code expected to be introduced during the next legislative session. Georgia law says a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect becomes an adult at 18. Deprivation cases are handled in Juvenile Court. The same person, if accused of an act of delinquency, is considered an adult at 17. The case goes to adult court. Now a suggestion is on the table to split the issue by raising the age to 18 in misdemeanor cases but leaving it at 17 for felonies.
The next session of the Georgia General Assembly is months away but advocates are busy polishing a major bill that could affect children and their families across the state. In fact, they’ve been working on this legislation—a complete revamp of the state’s juvenile code—since 2004. A new code, the first in four decades, was introduced in 2009 as The Child Protection and Public Safety Act but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. To be considered in the term that begins next January, it must be reintroduced. Its supporters want to make sure it’s in good shape. “Our goal is to work through the 2009 bill as a draft,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University, “and to have an edited version for the next legislative session.”
“We’re going to take the opportunity to make some technical changes and changes all the stakeholders can agree to,” said Mindy Binderman, director of government affairs and advocacy of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a policy advocacy group. A hearing on the proposed code is set for June 28 at the Capitol. More meetings and hearings are expected over the summer.