With a stroke of a pen, the governor signed HB 373 into law, giving both of them and thousands of others with a track record of good behavior and academic success in Georgia’s Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) and Youth Development Centers (YDCs) a chance to substantially reduce their time in custody. Known as the “Good Behavior bill,” the measure passed in the 2011 legislative session that ended last month also gives juvenile court judges more discretion.
“I feel very good, I’m very happy,” said Padron, after the signing ceremony at the state capitol. “I feel like I can begin my life again, like I’ll be able to go home and help my family. Now everybody has hope; an opportunity to show that they can do better.”
Calderon agreed with her fellow Macon YDC peer.
“I’m ecstatic,” she said, of the bill formally endorsed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ). “I would say that it gives us hope that we can show our judge that we deserve to go home. And I have a tough judge.”
Sponsored by state Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) and state Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), the bill allows juvenile court judges to modify the sentences of designated felons committed to DJJ facilities. Currently, there is no provision for judges to modify sentences based on a child’s behavior, academic achievement or rehabilitation status.
“This is not about managing budget constraints, this is about public safety and motivating kids to do better,” insisted DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell. “This gives them a chance to prove that they can change and turn their lives around.”
Rep. Pak called the measure a “step in the right direction” for prison system reform in Georgia.
“It gives juveniles an incentive to behave and get to take advantage of educational opportunities, which is the whole goal of the juvenile justice system,” said Pak. “I hope this results in a lot of juveniles turning their lives around.
He emphasized that the measure is not about being “soft” on crime.
“This doesn’t mean that everyone has the opportunity to get out; only those who are completely rehabilitated will be considered, which is better for everyone overall,” he said. “It is also very cost-effective because it costs $220 a day to house a juvenile compared to $40 a day for an adult inmate.”
Key provisions in the bill, which officially takes effect July 1, include:
- It allows judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release.
- A motion can only be filed after the child has served a year in custody and cannot be re-filed more than once a year.
- Good behavior and academic achievement will weigh heavily in the child’s favor.
- DJJ will make recommendations, but the juvenile court judge assigned to the case will have the final say.
- The victim and prosecuting attorney will be notified within 14 days of the child’s scheduled hearing date.
“The victim will have the opportunity to participate in the hearing,” added Rep. Pak. “They will have the chance to have their voices heard too.”
Commissioner Howell said DJJ will play a key role in “guiding the process” of ensuring the bill’s implementation.
“One thing that’ll be important is making sure that the stakeholders understand what tools are being given to them,” said supporter Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), who during the last session introduced statewide prison reform legislation backed by the governor. “We’ll have to make sure that the juvenile court judges understand the flexibility being given to them.”
Gov. Deal signed the bill during a small afternoon ceremony attended by Padron, Calderon and representatives from DJJ and CJCJ, along with legislative sponsors and other supporters.
“Yes it is,” Commissioner Howell responded, with a broad smile. A hush fell over the room as Gov. Deal, seated as his desk, scribbled his signature.
“This is a very good day for DJJ, that’s why everyone’s being so quiet,” quipped Commissioner Howell, eliciting laughter.
Afterwards Calderon and Padron posed for pictures on the capitol steps and gushed about their first ever visit to the state capitol.
Sen. McKoon said their presence was very important.
“It was a good feeling seeing those young women today,” he said. “It’s no longer abstract when you see the real people who are affected by this. It’s a good feeling to know that this provides incentives for them to have good behavior and to pursue academic achievement.”
Calderon admitted that she was nervous during the visit to the governor’s office.
“My hands was sweating,” she said, with a giggle.
By the end of the event, however, she said her nervousness faded into excitement.
“I’m going to stay positive and strive for success no matter what I do,” added Calderon. “I’m just going to pray everything goes well with this bill.”
House Bill 373, also known as the “Good Behavior bill,” has unanimously passed the Georgia Senate.
“I don’t anticipate any problems,” sponsor Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) said, of the measure approved with a 51 to 0 vote Monday. “I expect the governor to sign it into law. I’m very happy with the bill.”
The measure passed through just in time to meet Thursday’s official end to the 2011 legislative session. Formally endorsed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, it would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. Good behavior and academic achievement would weigh heavily in the child’s favor. A motion could only be filed after the child had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year.
“It originally indicated that we would have to notify the victim within 10 days, but in a hearing [Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus)] requested that be changed to 14 days,” explained DJJ Spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “Due to that change, it now goes back to the House this week for an ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ vote.”
Rep. Pak said he supports the change.
“We will agree to that change and then it should be good to go, for the governor’s office,” he said.
Moore and Rep. Pak predict that the bill will be approved with no problems this week, wrapping up a successful effort of introducing and approving the bill in the same session.
DJJ leaders have praised the measure as a means of promoting “long-term public safety” and providing an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community. Both Moore and Rep. Pak also said they expect Gov. Nathan Deal to sign it into law.
“We’re optimistic that it will go through; it’s a good bill,” Moore said. “Right now we’re just waiting for the legislative process.”
The measure seems to have a track record of advancing just in the nick of time. Last Monday – just two days before the critical Crossover Day deadline – it got pushed through to the Senate. Yesterday Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell had about 20 minutes to drive to the State Capitol to testify on it after it was unexpectedly added to the SJC agenda.
“I don’t know what happened I had just left the capitol; I was told that it wasn’t on the schedule and then all of a sudden I get this call from [committee chairman Bill] Hamrick’s legal assistant that I needed to turn around and come back,” says DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “All I could do was call the commissioner and tell her ‘you’ve got 20 minutes to make it.’”
Howell managed to arrive in time to present on the measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges. Sponsor Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) also addressed the SJC, before members approved it with no amendments. If passed into law, HB 373 would allow judges to review the sentences of felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. Behavior and academic achievement would weigh heavily in the child’s favor. A motion could only be filed after he or she had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year.
“It originally indicated that we would have to notify the victim within 10 days,” Moore said. “They only asked that we change that to 14 days.”
DJJ brass has praised the measure as a means of promoting “long-term public safety” and providing an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community. The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee. Once passed through, it will head to the Senate floor for a vote. “We’re really excited that it’s advancing so quickly; it’s a good bill,” gushed Moore. “It gives the kids an incentive to do what they need to do.”
Today is Crossover Day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House and House bills transition to the Senate. Any House bills that have not passed their chamber of origin will not progress in 2011. Because this is the first year of the two-year legislative cycle, any bills that fail to cross over may still be considered in 2012.
Here’s an update on some of the legislation pertaining to young people in Georgia and juvenile justice issues that JJIE.org has been following.
- SB 31 would expand attorney-client privilege to cover parents' participation in private conversations with defense attorneys representing their children in delinquent or criminal cases. The bill introduced in January by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) gives the child – not the parent – exclusive rights to waive the privilege. This measure passed the Senate on February 23 and now awaits consideration by the House Civil Judiciary Committee.
- Introduced last month by Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), SB 80 would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to give a DNA sample. It would be analyzed and kept in a database by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Senate State Institutions and Property Committee voted affirmatively on it last week. It now awaits consideration by the full Senate.
- SB 105 proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) commissioner. The petition for parole could be brought by either the child in custody for a designated felony or DJJ. It requires a recommendation by a DJJ counselor placement supervisor no less than a year after the child has been in the department's custody. Sponsored by Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), it was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) March 4 and awaits further consideration by the committee. Sen. Jones has told JJIE.org that he will support a similar bill, HB 373 (see description below), if necessary. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he says. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”
- SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and Child Protection and Public Safety Act, has not yet made it out of the SJC, making it more likely that it won’t advance any further this session. That would be a major blow for supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004. Some local child advocates are hinting off the record to JJIE.org that some exciting updates are expected on this soon. Sen. Jones says SJC chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick tells him that supporters of the measure have been “in discussions with Governor [Nathan] Deal about this.” JJIE.org, of course, will keep you posted on any new developments.
- SB 208, the Dropout Deterrent Act, has been assigned to the Senate Education and Youth Committee (SEYC). Introduced by Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) on March 4, this bill proposes to raise the age that children are required to be in school from 16 to 17 years of age. The parent of a 16-year-old would be allowed to sign a waiver allowing the child to go to technical school or community college instead of a traditional public school. The measure is similar to SB 49 introduced by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell). It proposes to raise the required school age from 16 to 16.5 years of age. “That one might be debated on Crossover Day and if it gets pushed through I will support it,” says Sen. Fort. “My bill increases the age to 17, although I prefer 18. I think 17 is a good compromise. The fact of the matter is that thousands of young people drop out and do so at a great cost to themselves and the rest of the state. If thousands don’t show up for 11th grade they’re more than likely going to end up in the juvenile justice system. More than half of those in the system now don’t graduate high school and we end up paying for them on the back end with prison and public assistance.”
- SB 224, introduced by Sen. Jones on March 7, would limit the cases where children age 13 or older would automatically be tried for aggravated child molestation in superior court rather than juvenile court. Only cases where the victim is physically injured would immediately go to adult court. “This is a very good bill designed to keep cases in juvenile court rather than having these kids tried in adult court,” says Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “A lot of states are beginning to do this. This protects juveniles by ensuring that kids who commit these infractions, especially when it is consensual, can stay in juvenile court where their records can be sealed and they have a real shot at rehabilitation.” The bill has been referred to the SJC. “This measure has bi-partisan support and we’re looking for [another bill] to attach it to,” notes Sen. Jones. “Any time a bill comes through we can amend that bill as long as it addresses the same chapter and title. HB 373 (see description below) would be a great vehicle for us. If that bill continues moving forward we’ll attach it to 373 and let it ride along!"
- Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s (D-Decatur) Foster Children's Psychotropic Medication Monitoring Act, also known as HB 23, is likely dead for this session. It would have required the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create procedures to ensure that the psychotropic medication administered to children in foster care is appropriate and delivered with informed consent of the parent. Children over the age of 14 could also provide their own consent. The bill would have also required DHS to keep records of the medications and other therapies received or recommended by the child. Rep. Oliver has agreed to drop the measure for the time being, according to Kirsten Widner, policy director for Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. The center has received funding for a pilot program that would better track the medications foster children receive. The endeavor is a partnership between Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based national foundation, and DHS. “Rep. Oliver has agreed to hold the bill for now and see how this pilot program goes,” says Widner. “We’re really excited to work with Casey Family Programs.”
- The House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee has given a favorable recommendation to HB 185, also known as the Runaway Youth Safety Act. The measure, sponsored by Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold) now awaits consideration by the full House. It would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children. It also prevents facilities that serve runaways from violating two state laws: contributing to the unruliness of a minor and interference of custody of a parent, so long as staffers either contact a parent or file an abuse report within the first 72 hours of contact with the child. “This bill allows shelters to care for the child up to three days as long as they are trying to reunite this child with their parents or guardian,” explains Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “It also requires these shelters to be registered and follow certain best practices in regard to child welfare. These requirements are necessary to assure that those who are providing substitute care are accountable to someone for the care rendered.”
- HB 200, which seeks to toughen the penalty for sex traffickers and improve outcomes for victims, passed the full House on March 2. The measure introduced by Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta) now awaits consideration by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Committee Chairperson Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Gwinnett) has said she will make it a priority,” says supporter Shelley Senterfitt of the non-profit, Georgia Women for Change. “We are happy that it made it over before Crossover Day, but we won’t count our chickens before they hatch. I try not to anticipate anything, but we haven’t heard anyone express concern with it.” Key provisions include an expanded definition of “coercion” in the human trafficking statute (including causing or threatening financial harm), prohibiting defense by blood relation (such as parents exploiting their children) or by marriage (such as a husband “selling” his wife). It significantly increases penalties for human traffickers who target minors. Those arrested for sexual servitude would be treated as victims, not criminals, eligible for victim’s compensation. Children being prostituted would still be arrested, but could use an “affirmative defense,” allowing the child to avoid prostitution charges.
- HB 314 would allow children in foster care to leave school to attend court hearings in their deprivation cases without being counted absent for part or all of the school day. Also known as "Jessie's Law," the bill passed the full House last week. Sponsor Rep. Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta) now awaits assignment to a Senate Committee.
- The “Good Behavior bill” also known as HB 373 pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. It passed through the House Monday – just in time to meet this week’s critical deadline. The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. A motion could only be filed after the child had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year. Backed by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), the bill is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the SJC.
- HB 471 seeks to require that an objective, written assessment instrument be used to determine whether detention of a child in a Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC) or alternate out-of-home setting is appropriate for a child who has been arrested. Sources tell JJIE.org this bill is dead mainly because the governor's office has not had time to determine if it will cost the state more money to implement it. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), who still supports the bill and intends to sponsor it again next year. The measure also clarifies that keeping a child in secure detention prior to adjudication and disposition should be done rarely and only if less restrictive options have been determined to be inappropriate.
- Rep. Donna Sheldon’s (R-Dacula) HB 529 would expand the professionals required to report child abuse or neglect to include reproductive health clinic staffers. The bill has been referred to the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee.
- Rep. Roger Bruce’s (D-Atlanta) HR 9 introduced last month would create a joint study committee to look into the causes and effects of teen violence. The resolution calls for a joint study committee made up of six appointed members to issue a report including possible legislative recommendations by January 2012. HR 9 has been referred to the House Children and Youth Committee.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.