WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. “When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger’s killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant,” Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. “I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”
Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said.
The Georgia House of Representatives has approved a measure dubbed the “good behavior bill,” that pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. The 169 to 1 vote came just in time to meet this week’s critical legislative “crossover day” deadline. “I am so pleased with the passage of House Bill 373 and grateful to B.J. Pak, Jay Neal, Wendell Willard, Stacey Abrams, Yasmin Neal and all of the representatives who voted in support of the bill,” said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell. “It is great that our leadership understood the opportunity this bill presents for DJJ, our youth and Georgia. I am looking forward to working with the Senate.”
Georgia’s long-awaited Juvenile Code rewrite— the first in four decades — is inching closer to completion. Some key stakeholders involved in shaping the legislation are scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to hammer out more details in Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. Many of the issues slated for discussion were raised at a Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) hearing at the state capitol Monday. “We’ve had a positive start to the session and this hearing is just a part of finishing up the vetting of this bill,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit helping to lead the rewrite effort. “Today was a good day.
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.
Anyone passing by room 450 at Georgia’s capitol on Monday probably thought lawmakers were talking about facial parts. The Senate Judiciary Committee was actually discussing CHINS—the acronym for Children in Need of Services—an important concept in the rewrite of the state’s juvenile code. In the proposed code, expected to be introduced when the legislature convenes in 2011, the term would replace language in the current code about “status offenders.” The change is more than semantic. Status offenses are acts that would not be crimes for adults, such as truancy or running away from home. Children who commit such offenses in Georgia can be classified as “unruly” or “ungovernable,” and under the current code can be detained “for days, weeks or even months in secure detention facilities,” according to a report prepared for the Senate committee by the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss the juvenile code rewrite bill SB 292, Article 6 next Monday at 2 pm in room 450 at the Capitol. Article 6 is controversial because it deals with Children in Need of Services (CHIN’s). These kids are considered status offenders under Georgia law. Currently, they are treated the same as delinquent kids. Article 6 would provide status offenders with family oriented services geared toward fixing their problems. Some of the agencies expected to attend include the Truancy Intervention Project, the Office of Child Advocacy and the Department of Behavioral Health. Attorney Julia Neighbors from Just Georgia wrote a passionate argument for Article 6:
“Current research and best practices now suggest that youth and families in crisis require a faster response than courts can offer and that juvenile justice systems are often ill-equipped to provide the services these youth and families need. ”
SB 292 was introduced at the end of the 2009 legislative session as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. The intent of this important legislation is to comprehensively modernize and streamline the current stature concerning the juvenile code found in O.C.G.A. Title 15. The current code was adopted in 1971 and has been revised several times since. It is considered so out of date that the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution in 2005 calling for its complete overhaul. SB 292 did not pass in the 2010 session, but was introduced purely to move the legislation forward in the next session. The code needs to be modernized for several reasons. It is so confusing and disorganized that even the most experienced judges and lawyers have trouble using it. It must be updated to comply with federal law dealing with child welfare and the federal funds attached to those laws. The revision of the code reflects the best practices of other states and evidence based practices of child welfare. We know more about child development than we did when the code was developed in 1971. This understanding needs to be reflected in Georgia’s laws. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on this piece of legislation on Monday, August 9th at 2 pm at the Capitol in room 450. They will be hearing testimony on Article 6 in the code to create a new approach for intervening with children who are currently considered “unruly.” Children in Need of Services (CHINS) include children who have committed an act that would not be against the law but for the fact that they are children, such as skipping school, running away from home, drinking alcohol, and violating curfew. This would also include children who are “habitually disobedient” to their parents and place themselves or others in unsafe circumstances through their behavior. The courts now intervene with these children as if they were delinquency cases rather than in the more holistic, service-oriented approach of the rewrite. This approach has shown to be more effective, more cost efficient and more protective of public safety. __________________________
Normer Adams is Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children and a writer, speaker and consultant on family and social issues such as advocacy, lobbying, and child welfare policy. Learn more at www.gahsc.org/