As an attorney and recently retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, it was disappointing that the new comprehensive Georgia juvenile code legislation failed to pass. Watching many well-intended professionals take years to finalize proposed legislation, only to see it fail due to questions regarding compromised provisions and lack of resources, was disappointing to say the least. To see a forward-thinking adult criminal justice package pass through the Georgia General Assembly within one year, should make all of us wonder about the real reasons for our joint disappointment this past session. It has been recently announced by Gov. Nathan Deal that juvenile justice will be the new focus of the Special Council on Criminal Justice, which was instrumental in bringing about those need reforms in the adult system. JUSTGeorgia, the coalition of advocates working for reform in the juvenile system, praised the governor’s move.
The stakeholder organizations involved in Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite legislation are still providing input for the sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law.
Representatives from a diverse array of child welfare organizations shared their respective views on HB 641 at a standing-room only hearing before House Judiciary Committee members Thursday.
Overwhelming support for the effort – now roughly seven years in the making – was repeatedly voiced during the two-hour gathering at the state capitol, along with critical suggestions for improvement. The rewrite has received commitments from Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership to ready the measure for a vote in the 2012 legislative session.
“I think we’re finding out that a lot of people have concerns and they’re coming together to make this a good piece of legislation,” says committee chairman Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs), of the presentations made by organizations such as the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) and Interfaith Children’s Movement. “It was very encouraging to me. Hopefully by January we will have a bill that is ready to move forward.”
Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — will likely be ready for a vote in the next legislative session thanks to support from Gov. Nathan Deal and some in the Georgia House and Senate leadership, according to two non-profits involved in the drafting of the legislation. “The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release. “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”
Representatives from the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and Voices for Georgia’s Children, said, this week that the Act, Senate Bill 127, received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” Voices lists the legislation’s current status as “in the Senate Judiciary Committee” with “general support from the Governor’s office as well as the office of the Speaker.” “From the beginning, this process has been a great example of how to build good, thoughtful and effective legislation,” said sponsor Senator Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). “We have had buy-in from all the players: from the courts to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, service providers, youth and families; pretty much every interested party.”
JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that includes Voices and Barton along with non-profit Georgia Appleseed, has led the rewrite effort as a vehicle to improve Georgia’s juvenile laws and the underlying social service systems. Barton’s Policy Director Kirsten Widner and Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney contend that the rewrite is the culmination of more than four years of research and consensus building to solve dilemmas faced by children, families, courts, detention facilities and taxpayers. SB 127, they said, is based on data-driven “best practices,” with an eye to timeliness and fiscal responsibility.
The state juvenile code rewrite and a bill proposing an end to the practice of overmedicating foster children topped the agenda Tuesday as advocates from JUSTGeorgia and the Georgia Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program gathered at the capitol for their annual lobby day. More than 300 supporters from across the state turned out to meet with legislators about what they say are two top critical policy issues affecting children this session. “We’re all here trying to do right for the children of Georgia,” says Georgia CASA Executive Director Duaine Hathaway. “We are here to inspire Georgia legislators and get them to act on behalf of Georgia’s children.”
JUSTGeorgia Project Manager Julia Neighbors says the event is as an opportunity for the network of volunteers and supporters to reconnect with seasoned lawmakers, while raising awareness among the 45 new legislators who have taken office this year. “This is also just a good opportunity for JUSTGeorgia to work with CASA,” she says.
A new survey to gauge what parents and students think about public school discipline is being fielded right now by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The non profit group is analyzing student discipline issues across the state. They’re looking at student discipline data and interviewing a wide range of people connected with schools and courts, including principles, teachers, school probation officers, attorneys and juvenile court judges. Twelve school districts representing a range of geography and economics are currently participating and have been promised anonymity. JUSTGeorgia and the Barton Center are helping get the word out to families. “We want a broad based and diverse group of parents and students to respond. We’ve asked a number of stakeholder groups around the state to forward surveys to their mailing list so we can get as many views as possible,“ said Rob Rhodes, Director of Legal Affairs at Georgia Appleseed.
Parents are not always the best advocates for children charged with crimes. In fact, parents may be uninvolved, absent, or even hostile, experts told state senators as they discussed proposed changes to Georgia’s juvenile code. Some of those experts were young people who’ve been through the juvenile justice system. They are identified by first names only:
Giovan, 20, was only 11 months old when he entered foster care. By 12, he was also in the juvenile justice system, declared unruly for cursing at foster parents he says repeatedly told him he was worth nothing.
How judges handle delinquent kids could change under proposals for a new juvenile code in Georgia. SB292, Article 7 focuses on kids who’ve committed acts that would be considered crimes if they were adults. Read SB292 here
Read Article 7 of the Proposed Model Code
Julia Neighbors of JUSTGeorgia tells me, “This article will primarily effect defense attorneys, district attorneys and superior court judges.” Article 7 will allow attorneys to access more of a child’s information as well as give superior court judges other options aside from detention. Article 7 fundamentally works to separate “unruly” kids from “delinquent” kids. Delinquent kids now have alternatives of their own, such as the option to request bail. The Senate Judiciary Committee takes up these changes on September 30th at 2pm in the Capitol, room 450.
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.
Atlanta’s online teen news forum, Vox, has joined JustGeorgia in a campaign to change the state’s juvenile laws. Here’s part of the latest Vox post from 19 year Giovan Bazan:
The lives of countless youth are dictated by a juvenile justice system that is flawed and a code that is severely outdated. Up until recently, teens have been idly watching as their lives change for the worse either because they didn’t know how to speak out and demand change or they were unable to. Currently, the Georgia General Assembly is convening at the State Capitol, revising the laws that affect all of us teens. The Georgia Code’s Juvenile Court Provision (Juvenile Code) is a series of laws that governs how our state responds to minors and their families in cases of abuse, neglect, violations of criminal law by children and other circumstances requiring court intervention. The laws were enacted in 1971, long before any of us teens were ever born.