Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is asking the state legislature to spend $5 million dollars to set up community diversion programs for low-risk youth offenders, on the model of other states. The appropriation would “create an incentive funding program” to encourage communities to treat appropriate youth at home, Deal told lawmakers at his annual State of the State address on Jan. 17. “We would emphasize community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders as an alternative to regional and state youth centers,” Deal said, options like substance abuse treatment and family counseling. He emphasized the chance to save money, saying every secure bed in a Youth Detention Center, a facility for longer-term sentences, costs $91,000 annually.
Criminal justice reform – including juvenile justice – is among Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s top priorities during his tenure, according to a key member of his policy staff. “As a former juvenile judge this is certainly one of his passions,” said Public Safety Policy Advisor David Werner during the “A Conversation with the Governor’s Policy Staff” event hosted Wednesday by the non-profit Voices for Georgia’s Children. “His son is also a juvenile court judge in Hall County.”
The governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Erin Hames and Health Policy Advisor Blake Fulenwider also participated in the forum attended by about 85 representatives from child advocacy organizations at the Georgia Freight Depot building. Werner said the bi-partisan commission Gov. Deal assembled earlier this year to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by January will likely step up its efforts starting next month. The effort is being led by the Pew Research Center.
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 introduction of a long-awaited juvenile code rewrite in the state Senate earlier in the day added to the celebratory mood of an evening reception held in honor of Governor Nathan Deal’s nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies. Many child advocacy organizations turned out for the event hosted by Voices for Georgia’s Children. The Blue Room at the Georgia Freight Depot was all abuzz with the news that Sen. Bill Hamrick’s (R-30) SB 127 was likely headed to a Judiciary Committee hearing, possibly as soon as next week. “We are thrilled to know that it has been introduced,” said Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner. The organization was actively involved in drafting the legislation.
Buried in the Governor’s budget is a plan that is stirring up conflict among children’s advocates in Georgia, pitting supporters of two child welfare agencies against each other. The plan would fold the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million into the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF) effective July 1, 2011. Currently the Partnership is attached to the Department of Human Services. Officials of the GOCF say the change would save the state money and simplify access to information and services. Opponents of the move counter that it would undermine the Partnership’s commitment to community-based decision-making, jeopardize its private funding, and increase the size of state government.
Georgia ranks near the bottom on almost every index of child well-being charted by KIDS COUNT, the annual survey that tracks children and families in all 50 states. While the state has made progress on issues like child deaths, teen pregnancy and high school graduation rates, Georgia sits at #42. So when 500 people who provide services for children got together this week at the Georgia Conference on Children and Families, they had plenty to talk about. Leaders of the largest state agencies and non-profits who guide child policy came together in front of a full house on Wednesday to send a message about sharing common goals and measuring progress with data. “We have to work together by developing outcomes we agree to and track,” said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “Child welfare has changed so much over the years it really needed a break from the past. We have moved away from the model of child rescue to the model of family restoration. It’s more informed by research and outcomes than in the past. What we know from research is that children are best cared for by their families.”
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.
Children’s Rights, Inc. a national advocacy group, filed a motion in federal court this month in an effort to force the State to turn over documents related to diversion, safety resources and temporary guardianships of children in Fulton and DeKalb counties. The group is concerned that DFCS is artificially suppressing the number of investigations and the number of children in foster care, leaving abused and neglected children in danger. Read more from Beth Locker’s blog at Voices for Georgia’s Children