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Georgia Appeals Court Rejects Check-Box Juvenile Court Order

An order by a Juvenile Court judge on a pre-printed form made by checking boxes and writing cursory comments, was thrown out by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The judge admits he got sloppy on the form, but stands by the merits of his decision and explains that the case was complicated by Georgia sentencing guidelines.

JXB, a minor from central Georgia, was sentenced to a year in secure state detention for bringing a weapon to school, as specified in an order earlier this year from Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Philip Spivey.

But the order itself was a pre-printed form that offered check-box options to serve as findings, such as: offender “has demonstrated by his conduct a lack of respect for authority, both parental and legal.”

The form also includes boilerplate language on the five categories that Georgia law requires juvenile sentencing judges to consider, such as needs and best interests of the child and protection of the community. Underneath, there is space for the court to record the facts in each category, said Carl Cansino, JXB’s attorney.

“But in my particular case, most of the lines said ‘N/A, not applicable’ … there’s not any facts in there,” he contended.  As soon as he saw the order, Cansino said, he knew he would appeal.  He brought the question of the form itself and the merits of the case to the appeals court.

“Mea culpa,” admitted Spivey, but explained, “I did the right thing; I just didn’t do it in the right form.”

The Court of Appeals remanded the order back down to Spivey’s court but did not rule on the merits of the case. Spivey this month released JXB on time served: six months.

“I wish I had given him six months to start with, that’s what I would like to have done, but you know we can’t do that,” Spivey said.

Georgia has two types of secure detention facility for minors—those for short sentences of 30 days or less and those for long sentence of one year or more.

There’s no way for Spivey or any other juvenile judge to order medium-term confinement.

JXB took a baseball bat to school and used it to hit another student—a bully who scared JXB and who is now an adult in the Baldwin County Jail, according to Cansino.

But according to Spivey, JXB had also exhibited violence in the classroom and had directed that violence against others.  He said teachers testified that JXB was in the worst fight they had ever seen.

The assault on the victim was pre-planned, the judge said, and with a bat in play, “people could have been seriously injured or killed, that’s what I was concerned about.”

As for the form, Spivey said it is used in about eight of ten designated felony cases — the most serious offenses — that go through his eight-county court circuit.  He got it from another judge at a seminar.

It’s not one of the many forms referenced in the Uniform Rules for the Juvenile Courts of Georgia, said Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia Executive Director Eric John.

But he defended forms, when used correctly. “There are all kinds of forms out there … with preprinted verbiage,” John said, “but you have to type in the crucial language.”

Cansino criticized the form saying, “I think any time you have a fill-in-the-blank or check form, it lends itself to being as brief as possible.”

He continued: “How many cases have gone where people are now in the RYDC with check-boxed orders?” He predicted courts will “flush” the form.

However, John said he does not think poorly-filled out juvenile orders are a widespread problem; if it were, more cases would appear in appeals court.

But few juvenile cases appear in the Court of Appeals on any grounds.  A recent study of several states gives some explanations. One is that many juvenile sentences are so short, measured in months, that they are served out before an offender could get a court date.

Because JXB is a juvenile, court records and his name are sealed.

It’s Official: Key Juvenile Focused Bills Now Law in Georgia

Some key juvenile justice-related bills passed in Georgia’s 2011 legislative session are now law.

The juvenile “Good Behavior Bill” the Runaway Youth Safety Act and the Human Trafficking Bill officially went into effect July 1st.

HB 373, known as the “Good Behavior Bill,” gives children who achieve 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. The measure, backed by the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, also gives juvenile court judges more discretion.

Key provisions in the law include:

  • 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 weighs heavily in the child’s favor.
  • DJJ makes recommendations, but the juvenile court judge assigned to the case has the final say.
  • The victim and prosecuting attorney are notified within 14 days of the child’s scheduled hearing date. All victims will have the opportunity to participate in the child’s court hearings.

The Runaway Youth Safety Act allows homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children. Its passage also keeps facilities that serve runaways from no longer 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 72 hours.

Key components of the measure include:

  • Allows shelters to care for the child up to three days as long as they are efforts to reunite the child with their parents or guardian.
  • Requires shelters to be registered and follow certain best practices in regards to child welfare.
  • Some advocates say it keeps those who are providing substitute care accountable for the care rendered.

Atlanta is a known hub for human trafficking and HB 200, toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to endow victims with more protective rights.

Key provisions in the “sex trafficking bill” include:

  • Provides an expanded definition of “coercion” in the human trafficking statute, to include causing or threatening financial harm.
  • Prohibits defense by blood relation – such as parents exploiting their children – or by marriage – such as a husband “selling” his wife.
  • Significantly beefs up penalties for human traffickers who target minors. If the victim is at least 16 but less than 18 years old, the crime is a felony and punishable by 5-20 years in prison and a fine of $2,500 to $10,000. If the victim is under 16 years old, the crime is a felony and punishable by 10-30 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
  • Treats those in sexual servitude as victims, not criminals, by offering them recovery under the state crime victim’s fund.
  • Provides an affirmative defense for victims who come forward with the sexual crimes of prostitution, sodomy, solicitation of sodomy and masturbation for hire, if the defendant was being trafficked for sexual servitude.
  • Allows the state to seize any real or personal property that a trafficker used for, or bought with the proceeds of the crime.
  • Requires law enforcement agencies to receive training on how to relate to human trafficking victims.

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It’s Official: Governor Deal Signs Juvenile ‘Good Behavior Bill’ Into Law

Lorena Padron, 18, and Maria Calderon, 19, were all smiles this afternoon as they flanked Governor Nathan Deal in his office.

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.

Calderon and Padron pose at the state capitol.

“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.

“This is HB 373, right,” the governor inquired to the crowd packed inside his office. 

“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.”

 

 

Georgia Senate Approves Juvenile “Good Behavior bill”

Rep. Pak

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.”

Crossover Day Is Here: The Latest On Juvenile Justice, Child Focused Legislation

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.

Senate Bills

  • 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!"

House Bills

  • 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.”
    Adams
  • 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.
    Rep. Pak
  • 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.

House Resolutions

  • 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.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. 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.

Juvenile ‘Good Behavior’ Bill Clears Ga. House, Heads To Senate

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."

The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), cleared the House Rules Committee on Friday and was heard on the House floor Monday.

Rep. Pak

“I think it’s good; obviously it’s something that has been worked on for several years,” Rep. Pak said, shortly after the vote. “This provides an incentive for juveniles in detention centers to behave. It allows them to petition the court for a modified sentence if he or she completes the terms of their sentence and demonstrates that they are rehabilitated. As the law stands now, they can’t even be considered for early release even if they have met all expectations.”

Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Director Kirsten Widner said she was pleased with the House vote.

“I think it’s great that they recognize that they had a great bill in front of them,” she said.

The measure is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), Rep. Pak said.

“This provides these juveniles with more of a chance to get another shot,” he added. “It’s about time we do this.”

Howell has described the legislation as  “good” for Georgia and DJJ. “It provides an incentive for youth to behave appropriately and focus on their education and rehabilitation from the moment they enter the system rather than waiting until the end of their commitment,” she said.

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 — is Wednesday. Any bills that have not passed a committee hearing by then will have to be considered later in the two-year legislative cycle.

Howell has said the measure “promotes long-term public safety” and provides an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community.

“I spoke with a young lady at Macon YDC who is a designated felon,” she said. “She has attained her diploma, completed technical trade training and is a behavioral model at the facility. She has another year of her five-year sentence to serve. She is worried about what she will do as a 21 year old and mother when she gets out. This bill gives the courts an opportunity to weigh whether there is a greater risk to long-term public safety if we leave a young lady like this locked up.”

Although it would likely be touted as a victory for child advocates in the state, final passage of HB 373 could also signal the end for Senate Bill 105 which proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within DJJ. One key difference between the measures is that one gives more discretion to juvenile court judges while the other leaves the child’s fate in the hands of parole board members appointed by the DJJ commissioner.

“My bill does not modify the sentence,” noted SB 105 sponsor Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur). “Under my bill, the child would have to spend time in a detention center and one third of his or her remaining time on supervised release.”

Sen. Jones had recently told JJIE.org that if his bill was not heard he would “attach it” to the massive Juvenile Code rewrite. Sources affiliated with Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, have hinted that some exciting updates are expected soon on the status of the code rewrite but they won’t elaborate at this time. So far it has not made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). Failure to do so this session would be a major blow to supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004.

Sen. Jones now tells JJIE.org that he will support HB 373. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he said. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”

He said he also backs the idea that Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske proposed to JJIE.org last month; pass HB 373, assess the data collected on it for a predetermined time and then only revisit the parole board model if data reveals problems with the execution of the good behavior bill.

“The ultimate goal is not to have good kids trapped in a bad system,” Sen. Jones said. “Anything that addresses that; I’m all for it.”

JJIE.org will be monitoring closely these final days in the session before crossover day. Keep checking here for updates.

Uphill Battle Likely For Juvenile Parole Board Legislation Sponsor

Now that a bill allowing for more discretion among juvenile court judges has been filed with the Georgia House of Representatives, it may be an uphill battle for the sponsor of another bill pushing for the creation of a juvenile parole board.

Nearly two weeks ago Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member, introduced Senate Bill 105, which would establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

“With limited financial resources and the severe overcrowding in our jails, we must begin looking at alternatives to incarceration,” said Sen. Jones of the measure, now awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This bill is aimed at juvenile offenders who have committed only designated felonies.”

The main challenge ahead for Sen. Jones may be the fact that another measure dubbed the “good behavior bill" pushing for more discretion among juvenile court judges was also filed late last week. House Bill 373, 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 accomplished the terms of his or her sentence for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J Pak (R-Lilburn), has been endorsed by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb)

Both bills were introduced on the heels of Governor Nathan Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by next January. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of adults in the nation, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Judge Teske

Tom Williams, an assistant district attorney in the Flint Judicial Circuit, has issue with the fact that as drafted, the parole board bill only requires victims and prosecutors to be notified of the child’s parole status 72 within hours of it being granted.

“That’s a significant issue for a district attorney,” Williams said. “I don’t think that’s the way to go about it.  It’s not that we are opposed to a deserving child having a mechanism for early release – we know children change a lot – but the vehicle in which that child gets to request early release should be created in collaboration with the different entities involved. That’s what makes SB 127 (the Juvenile Code rewrite bill) so great, because everyone was at the discussion table.”

Williams added that there is “no one opinion shared among prosecutors in Georgia’s 159 counties and 49 judicial circuits,” but his organization welcomes the opportunity to be a part of shaping any legislation that would assist in the early release of rehabilitated juveniles.

DJJ representatives are being tight-lipped about their support of Sen. Jones’s measure.

“We support any legislation that the governor has said he will go ahead with,” DJJ Spokeswoman Scheree Moore said last week, noting that the agency “supports the legislative process” and will support. Sen. Jones’s legislation “if he gets it passed.”

A representative from the juvenile judges council has confirmed that the organization has not formally reviewed the parole board legislation. Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said he understands why the council has endorsed HB 373.

“It gives the judges more discretion, whereas the parole board measure actually takes away some discretion,” said Judge Teske, a former president of the organization. “It puts the decision of what kid get released into the hands of the executive branch.”

“Both sides agree that kids who have been incarcerated and have accomplished their goals and are rehabilitated should not remain incarcerated,” Judge Teske said.

“At that point we would be causing harm and warehousing rehabilitated kids,” he said. “The question is how do we accomplish that? I think we should go forward with [HB 373], test it out and see how it works and collect data on it. It can achieve the same results as the parole board; the consistent, fair release of children.”

Data collection is required, he said, if the good behavior measure does not work, the parole board idea could be revisited.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-30) has not yet called a hearing for the parole board measure, but it is receiving some bi-partisan support. Senator John B. Crosby (R-Tifton), a co-signer of the parole board bill, said he supports the measure and its “new approach” to juvenile justice in Georgia.

“If kids are going to change or desire to get rehabilitated they’re probably going to make that decision soon after incarceration,” said Sen. Crosby, a former juvenile and superior court judge. “This bill creates that opportunity…. It gives those who work in the juvenile justice arena some flexibility to work with.”

Governor Deal has received a copy of the bill and “has not come out in opposition to it,” Sen. Jones said. He echoed, Sen. Crosby’s sentiments. “A rehabilitation-focused approach to juvenile justice will help improve our public safety while also saving taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We need to break the cycle and intervene when young people break the law.”

Sen. Crosby emphasized that he does not support early release for violent offenders, but he sees the parole board as a great way to encourage rehabilitation.

“When you have mandatory sentencing and a child must stay the entire length of time, it doesn’t give much hope,” he said. “If he knew his behavior would help him get out that would be great motivation and also makes for safer detention centers. I’m not in support of mandatory minimums. We need to leave that discretion up to the judges elected by the people.”

Sen. Jones, who passed another bill last year that curbs the abuse of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools, said that the overall purpose of the legislation is to help children become productive members of society.

“Young people can turn their lives around for the better and this bill provides a mechanism for them to do that and move forward with their lives,” he said.

Here’s what we know about SB 105:

·      Panel members would be appointed by the DJJ commissioner and would decide which designated felons are eligible for parole.

·      If granted parole, juveniles would remain under the supervision of the DJJ until their maximum sentence expires.

·      Only those who have demonstrated good conduct and completed the educational and program requirements will be considered.

·      The panel would also be responsible for any parole violations; aiding parolees in finding employment and determining which designated felons are fit for relief from the panel.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. 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.

Juvenile Justice Forum Encourages Agency Collaboration

It was a chance meeting, but highly impactful. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Garland Hunt struck up what he expected to be a casual conversation on an elevator Tuesday. It turns out the man alongside him worked as a prosecutor in the state and had a lot to say to the newly appointed DJJ chief.

The forum brought together juvenile judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, school representatives, public defenders, child welfare agencies and members of the DJJ staff.

“He told me that ‘I know you all want to help out the (incarcerated) kids, but I get to see the victims every day,” says Hunt, who took his post in May. “Don’t forget the victims too.’ I think it was great for me to have that conversation; to be reminded of that fact and to keep that in the forefront of my mind as I make decisions every day.”

Such dialogue – and more importantly creating an opportunity for representatives from various agencies across the state to communicate and collaborate formally and informally – was at the heart of a Juvenile Justice Forum held this week at the Lake Lanier Islands Resort in Buford. The event held September 14- 15 brought together juvenile judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, school representatives, public defenders, child welfare agencies and members of the DJJ staff. The objective was to have juvenile justice stakeholders discuss the challenges they face within the system.  More importantly though, organizers say the goal was to have attendees create action plans that can be executed in their respective communities.

“This event has brought together all the components of juvenile justice; we believe that there’s a local approach to juvenile justice that was focused on here,” says DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom. “This conference tried to bring together regional teams to decide what the priorities are and to work on preliminary plans together that will be followed up on in regional meetings.”

Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Governor's Office for Children and Families, the agency that sponsored the event, agrees that it was successful.

“I’m really excited about the work of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and DJJ, coming together and working together to spearhead a forum that is going to move us all forward,” he says “It’s  a really gratifying partnership.”

One exercise on day one of the forum entailed participants breaking off into four groups.  For example, one was comprised of prosecutors and law enforcement while another was made up of judges and public defenders. Each group was charged with answering the question “what are the major issues facing juvenile justice in Georgia over the next five years?”

"We believe that there’s a local approach to juvenile justice,” says DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom.

“It was interesting to see how the responses to the question changed based on your role in the system, says Vignati. “That’s why it’s great to have so many different perspectives together. This allows us to learn how to communicate and share information better.”

Vignati says each agency was encouraged to develop programs and initiatives that could be considered for funding from the Governor's Office for Children and Families,  an opportunity that will undoubtedly be in high demand in light of the ongoing economic recession and inevitable agency budget cuts expected in fiscal year 2011.

Attendees say a similar forum has not been held in the state since 2007.  Although that one also included an enlightening exchange of ideas, this week’s forum emphasized follow up and the development of action plans to be launched on the local level.

Luvenia Jackson, a former Clayton County School administrator, says it was her first time attending an event of this nature in the state.

“Coming from the educational side I see the need for a lot of collaboration between agencies,” says Jackson, who now works as a court liaison for schools. “This meeting has raised awareness. There are a lot of well-meaning people (in this industry), but the flow of information to the right people is not always there. This has allowed us to have a conversation with each other and realize we’re all connected and can find solutions as a unit.”

On the second day of the event, attendees heard young people share their perspectives on juvenile justice and then broke into regional groups. Group members worked to fine tune  previous suggestions and devise implementation plans for their respective communities.

The forum wrapped up in a large conference room with notes from brainstorming sessions plastered all over the walls, a visual reminder of tasks accomplished and the work ahead. Many participants said they were pleased with the overall outcome.

One exercise entailed participants breaking off into groups and answering “what are the major issues facing juvenile justice in Georgia over the next five years?”

“I really enjoyed getting a collective approach,” says Clayton County Public Defender Jerry Drayton. “There are two doors into the system -  delinquency and deprivation cases. We’ve been seeing a lot of crossover of juveniles coming in for deprivation and ending up in the area of delinquency. What’s good about the conference is that we’ve come up with a collaborative approach to dealing with both of them. We’re taking a statewide approach.”

The proposed action plans will be revised and developed at future regional meetings. Attendee Amy Shiver says she’s excited about what will come of the forum.

“This was an enjoyable and pleasurable experience that opened up our minds to come up with creative resources and networks to help the kids,” says Shiver, a staffer with DJJ in Ben Hill, Ga. “That’s why we’re here. The only way we’re going to save these children is by working together.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. 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 Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.

Long road to new Juvenile Code

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.

The legislation in the works would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into twelve articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights, and delinquency. New provisions would substantially change how some cases are handled.   Among dozens of proposed changes are these:

  • A requirement known in shorthand as one judge/one child would provide that, whenever possible, the same judge would handle all cases involving a child, whether deprivation or delinquency.
  • Judges could sentence children guilty of designated felonies, such as carjacking or aggravated assault, to as little as six months of restrictive custody instead of a minimum of 12 months, giving them more flexibility.
  • The burden of proving that a child is competent to be tried would fall on the state, rather than requiring the child to prove incompetence.
  • Status offenders—juveniles who commit offenses such as running away or truancy that are considered crimes only for juveniles, not adults—would fall under the new category of Children in Need of Services. Emphasis would be on getting to the cause of the problem rather than on punishment.

Under the proposed code revision, a multi-disciplinary team would work with the child’s family under the presumption that children don’t run away unless something is wrong at home, and aren’t chronically truant if school is going well.  “It’s looking at the child in context,” said Widner. “How can we help this child be more successful?”

Some provisions have already changed in a process that began six years ago when the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, asked for a rewrite of the juvenile code.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation.  Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready to meet its public in 2008.   In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code.

And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.   Through Georgia Appleseed, lawyers from some of the state’s top firms canvassed Georgia’s ten judicial districts, interviewing hundreds of “stakeholders,” from judges to juvenile delinquents and their victims. The results were reported in “Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code,” released by Georgia Appleseed in November, 2008.

“We found a huge consensus that the code is broken and needed to be fixed,” said Widner of the Barton Center, “and some consensus about how to fix it but not as much.”

The research, and later feedback on the model code, came into play in writing the legislation that became Senate Bill 292, introduced by Senator Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) and 23 co-sponsors in April, 2009.  To increase chances for a smooth passage, some provisions were dropped or altered between the model code and the senate bill.   The model code, for instance, said all cases involving children 13 to 17 years old would start in juvenile court—even those involving the so-called “seven deadly sins,”  felonies that now automatically go to superior court—although cases could be transferred to superior court.   Critics expressed concern that the move would mean being softer on serious crime.  “That was probably one of the most hotly discussed reforms of the model code,” Widner said.  The provision was removed.   “Leaving it in at this time might have killed the bill,” she said.

Some widely supported changes could be hard to implement because of increased costs at a time when the state budget is shrinking because of reduced revenues.  Advocates have already made some tough choices.

One provision said a child would be considered a juvenile in delinquency matters to age 18—up from 17 in the current code. The change would have brought delinquency law into line with deprivation law, which covers children to age 18.  But the age in the senate bill was left at 17 because of concerns that the juvenile justice system would be unable to handle the potential influx of older offenders.  “We very much at JUSTGeorgia believe in that change,” said Widner, “but it’s an expensive change. Even though the long-term cost would probably be significantly lower because it would cut down recidivism, it would require a shift of funds to juvenile court.”

In a 2008 response to the model code, a representative of the state Department of Juvenile Justice estimated that adding 17-year-olds would increase the population of juvenile offenders by as much as 30 percent, at a cost of $83- to $124 million a year. Capital costs would also be incurred to add space to juvenile facilities, the department’s response said.   “We didn’t disagree philosophically with the idea,” said Rob Rosenbloom of the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We just let people know what the budgetary impact would be.”

One controversial proposal was modified in the hope of picking up support.  Under the model code, a child could not waive the right to an attorney. The Senate bill, intended as a compromise, would allow a child to turn down representation—but only after talking to a lawyer.   Still the provision raises concerns.  “I think a child’s having an attorney is always a good thing,” said Judge Bryant Henry.  Henry is President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia. “An attorney is an independent party who can assess what’s going on. But what if the parents don’t want to hire an attorney? . . .One of the practical effects of that is going to be the responsibility that’s going to impose on the public defender’s office. It’s a good idea, but it’s going to have some financial ramifications.”

The JUSTGeorgia team is proud of the way the proposed rewritten code is being handled, although the process is slow and sometimes messy.    “The whole concept was to get some consensus among stakeholders that changes should be made, and what those changes were, before the bill was introduced,” said Binderman. “We continually meet with stakeholders of different opinions to get their buy-in.”

Expected heavy turnover under the gold dome next session will present advocates of the new code with yet another challenge.    “While we’re optimistic,” said Binderman, “we know we have a big road ahead just to keep educating legislators about the change.”

Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts

Read Senate Bill 292:  The Child Protection and Public Safety Act

Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code