Law Expert Lays out Legal Trends in Childrens’ Cases

John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law said the child welfare legal system “is full of faults, and you hear about it  … but it works most of the time.”
John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law said the child welfare legal system “is full of faults, and you hear about it … but it works most of the time.”

ATLANTA — An attorney and law professor, author and expert on child maltreatment, said some of the most important questions about evidence in child welfare cases now rolling through courts have to do with Shaken Baby Syndrome, authenticating electronic evidence like text messages, and how to prove or disprove child sexual assault.

“These are developments I think useful to practicing lawyers, either to argue in court or to put in a brief,” said John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif.  He was presenting his ideas, along with a reading list, to some 450 of his colleagues in Atlanta at the 36th National Child Welfare, Juvenile, and Family Law Conference, a project of the Colorado-based National Association of Counsel for Children.

The ability to provide the right evidence is “one of the most essential skills for any attorney,” said NACC Executive Director Kendall Marlowe. It’s especially difficult in child abuse cases, he said, where evidence can often be unclear or opinions differ.

Shaken Baby Syndrome

“There is a big debate right now about Shaken Baby Syndrome,” said Myers.

Shaken Baby Syndrome -- caregivers shaking babies out of frustration -- has been cited in courts for at least two decades as a form of abuse that can cause brain, eye, spinal and other damage.

There’s no question that head trauma is a form of abuse, but as Myers pointed out, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, (in a dissenting opinion in Cavazos v. Smith in 2011) that doubt has increased in the medical community “over whether infants can be fatally injured through shaking alone.”

Indeed, the Florida Court of Appeals in 2012 agreed with an aggravated child abuse defendant who said he should have been allowed to bring in a biomechanics expert to speak about child accidents and injuries.

But SBS is far from discredited, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals found in a first-degree murder case. In June 2013, in Day v. State, Judge Clancy Smith wrote “Expert testimony is not rendered unreliable by criticism.”


As more and more court evidence comes in the form of pixels and electrons sent between computers and phones, via Facebook, text and any other number of programs, attorneys have to figure out how to authenticate that communication.

Courts in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have recently said the basic principles of authentication are the same, said Myers.  Just as a signature does not prove who inked a handwritten letter, e-mail headers do not prove who sent a message.

Instead, “you put all the circumstances together to authenticate an e-mail or a text message,” said Myers.

For example, looking at a person’s computer hard drive, contents and appearance of a note, or figuring out who has a password on an account.

Or, if harassing texts, for example, stop while a defendant is in jail and restart when he or she is let out.

Proving Child Sexual Abuse

Finally, he outlined principles that are on the forefront on how to prove child sexual abuse — or rather, the question of if it’s provable at all.

“The most important case on that is not a brand new case,” said Myers, but “it’s a very important decision.”

In 2009, the Oregon Supreme Court said in State v. Southard that a physician diagnosis that a child has been sexually abused is inadmissible when there is no physical evidence.

That’s because there is so much debate on how to prove child sexual abuse, that a doctor’s testimony, though valuable, runs too high a risk of prejudicing a jury, as Myers explained Oregon’s ruling.

Reliable expert testimony must speak to complicated mathematical subjects, like the base rate of a certain symptom, and at what rate symptoms are found among abused and non-abused children, he said.

“I’m actually in favor” of allowing expert testimony diagnosing child sexual abuse, said Myers, “but only when it’s done by people who actually know what they’re talking about.”

This does not, he said, include many attorneys.

And any but the very best forensic interview is open to attack, Myers said. A defense attorney must pick apart every question to a child, if the interviewer asked coercive questions, did multiple interviews, taped the talk or used an anatomical doll.

Then there’s another scientific debate on how truthful children are at all, and how much they are influenced by what they overhear or are told. Some scientists say it’s unwarranted to think a child’s elaborateness or consistency of testimony is a marker of truth.

Yet Myers counseled against pessimism. Reading the literature, “you become convinced there is no point in trying to talk to kids; just give up, nothing works,” he said.

But he also said he thinks that focus on failure and falsehoods is itself a bias.

“The system is full of faults, and you hear about it  … but it works most of the time,” he said.

“We sometimes are caught in the moment and forget how far we have come.”


Youth Attorneys, Experts Arrive for Atlanta Summit


National Association of Counsel for Children

ATLANTA — The National Association of Counsel for Children 36th National Child Welfare, Juvenile, and Family Law Conference opens this morning with remarks from Georgia Supreme Court Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines to open three days of discussions on how best and how better to represent young people in courts.

Scheduled topics include the very lawyer-oriented, such as introducing electronic evidence in court, along with updates on hearsay and investigation techniques.

But organizers aim to present a broader picture of best practices in child welfare as well, inviting activists and public interest attorneys to talk about changes in the system and problems that still exist.

It’s the 36th annual conference for the Colorado-based NACC.

West of Memphis

(Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Equality before the law is a basic principle of the American justice system. Faith in the jury system is another cornerstone of our system, and the wisdom of allowing local control in policing and justice matters is a third. All three come in for harsh criticism in West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s new documentary about the West Memphis Three, whose trial, conviction, and appeal has also been covered in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

The West Memphis Three—Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin—were teenagers in 1993 when they were charged with murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. This crime drew widespread publicity due to its horrifying nature: the bodies of the murdered children were discovered, naked and hogtied, in a local creek, and appeared to have been sexually mutilated. Suggestions that the murders had been conducted as part of a Satanic ritual added another sensational element to the case.

A breakthrough came about a month later with the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with a 72 IQ, who also implicated Echols and Baldwin in the murders. Although substantial doubts were raised at the time concerning the validity of the evidence against them, all three were convicted in 1994—Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin to life imprisonment, and Misskelley to life plus two 20-year sentences.

West of Memphis is concerned primarily with the appeals process that led to the release of Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin in an Alford plea deal, which allowed each to enter a guilty plea while maintaining their innocence. The Alford plea also allows the state of Arkansas to consider their cases closed, a fact not lost on the original trial judge, David Burnett, now an Arkansas state senator, who repeatedly refused to grant new hearings in the case.

Although dollar figures are not discussed in West of Memphis, the lengthy appeals process that led to their release clearly cost a lot of money, and would never have happened without support from a number of celebrities, including Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson, all of whom appear in this film. This is where the principle of “equality before the law” becomes “all the justice you can afford,” because as a rule, the services of the best forensics and legal experts don’t come cheap.

The case presented in West of Memphis is damning, most of all for a bungling local police department and ambitious local officials who wanted the case solved and chose to overlook obvious suspects (most child homicides are committed by family members) and mishandled crucial evidence.

In an echo of the case of the Central Park Five, also the subject of a recent documentary, Misskelley’s confession was obtained in irregular circumstances, after lengthy, leading questioning. The medical examiner made all kinds of confident declarations during the trial which later turned out to be, at best, highly questionable. The jury apparently ignored evidence providing the accused with alibis, and about the lack of forensic evidence tying them to the murders. But since juries don’t have to explain their reasoning, we’ll never really know how they came to their decision. The end result—three young people essentially removed from society for the rest of their lives.

Two other stories are intertwined with the main narrative of the appeals process. One is the maturation of Damien Echols and the time and effort invested in the appeals process by his wife, Lorri Davis (both are producers of West of Memphis, along with director Amy Berg, and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh). It’s not clear why the film focuses so much on Echols, as opposed to Baldwin and Misskelley, but the result is that you may feel you are watching a film about the West Memphis One, rather than the West Memphis Three.

The other story builds a case that Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered boys, is the real killer. Hobbs has a history of violence against women and children, was the last person seen with the murdered boys, is a DNA match (along with about 1.5% of the population) to a hair found at the crime scene and has no alibi for the time period in which the crimes are believed to have been committed. Yet ultimately, all West of Memphis can assert is that he was the type of person who could have committed such a crime, which is more or less the kind of reasoning that led to the conviction of the West Memphis Three in the first place.

There is new information in Berg’s film, and some of it is fascinating, but the film as a whole loses its way in a thicket of details. I did appreciate the demonstration of turtles tearing apart a pig carcass, lending support to the assertion that the mutilation of the victims’ bodies were not caused by a serrated knife but by the many turtles living in the creek where the bodies were thrown. This demonstration also points out something forensics experts already know—when wild animals attack a corpse, they go for the soft tissue first, and that includes the genitals, thus providing an obvious explanation for the state in which the victims’ bodies were found.

Despite its extended running time, (147 minutes), West of Memphis feels oddly incomplete and unsatisfying. It’s heartfelt and angry, but also ultimately disappointing, particularly since this case has already been treated at length both in print and on film. Who will want to see it? I can think of three categories likely viewers: West Memphis Three completists interested in everything related to the case, people who prefer conventional documentaries rather than the more artful approach taken by Berlinger and Sinofsky in their Paradise Lost trilogy, and people who are new to the case and are willing to do some reading to fill in the details left out or glossed over in this film.

Simple, Pre-written Language Reduces Confusion for Youth in Juvenile Court

On Nov. 7, the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) will hold a webinar focusing on the new Models For Change publication “Washington Judicial Colloquies Project: A Guide for Improving Communication and Understanding in Court.”

The guide, published by Washington State NJJN member TeamChild, offers advice on how professionals can better explain and describe the legal language used in court proceedings to young people.

Working with the National Juvenile Defender Center and the Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network, TeamChild created a guide that suggests “colloquies,” pre-written language for judges and attorneys to use during young people’s first court appearances and further disposition hearings. The language is written at a 6th grade-level and designed to be easily understood by juveniles. In fact, according to the the guide, effective use of colloquies sometimes increased young people’s understanding of release and probation conditions from one third to 90 percent after hearings.

Presenting at the webinar will be TeamChild research associate and former University of Michigan sociology professor Rosa Peralta, who will discuss several of the recommended colloquies and later field questions from Webinar attendees.

The free event is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. EST. To view the webinar, attendees are required to register here.

Oregon Walks to Get Teens out of Adult Court

In what organizers say is the first event of its kind in the Pacific northwest, Oregon juvenile justice advocates will hold a 5K run/walk this month to publicize a campaign to channel the state’s 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds toward juvenile court.

“In 2009, my 15-year-old was convicted as an adult,” said April Rains, a board member of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit group that aims to make Oregon’s approach to public safety more effective and just. “I knew that he needed to be held accountable for what he did,” said Rains, a one-time victim advocate. But, “what was shocking was how little support I got for my son and my family. He was a good kid, was involved with church, loved learning, loved taking care of animals. When he was charged with this crime, it was like none of that mattered.”

Her son was charged with sex abuse I and sentenced to 75 months’ incarceration, which he’s now serving. The victim of the inappropriate touching was another family member, “so I was really seeing the situation from all sides,” said Rains, “but I couldn’t get the DAs to listen to what was best for our family.”

Rains wanted her son charged as a youth, first, so he could get treatment while being held accountable. Second, she did not want to see a felony conviction follow him around the rest of his life.

Now 19, her son has completed treatment, gotten a high school diploma and welding certifications and is in his third term of college, all while serving in a juvenile facility.

But there was no way for him to go to a juvenile judge. In 1994, Oregon voters passed Measure 11, which set minimum sentences for several serious criminal charges like robbery and murder. It applies to all defendants aged 15 and older, including indictments in adult court.

A total 975 Oregonians have served or are serving time for M11 crimes committed when they were under 18, according to October, 2012 state statistics. Under certain conditions, they are allowed like Rains’ son to serve time in a youth detention center rather than adult prison.

To help bring attention to family ordeals under Measure 11, Rains is serving as parent lead on the 5K Run/Walk for Youth Justice Awareness Month on Oct. 27 in Salem. YJAM began in October, 2008 in Missouri, founded by a mother whose 16-year-old son was convicted in adult court and committed suicide rather than face 30 years in prison. Events will be held in more than half the states this October.

Every state sets its own laws on the age of criminal responsibility, and many exclude certain serious offenses from juvenile court once the defendant is above about 14 to 17 years of age.

But that automatic appearance in adult court for young offenders like Rains’ son is one of the things they will work to change during the next state legislative session, said PSJ Youth Justice Policy Associate Jose Gutierrez. First, they want that decision about youth or adult court for teens to be in a judge’s hands.

They will also lobby “to provide some second chance for youth serving mandatory sentences,” explained Gutierrez. “We should require a hearing part way through their sentences. At that hearing, a judge would determine if that youth would stay in prison or be transferred for mandatory supervision by a parole officer.”

The third goal is to remove mandatory sentences for second-degree M11 offenses and replace that with sentencing discretion for judges.

Take for example robbery II, said Shannon Wight, PSJ associate director. That’s a charge that in Oregon could result from a fight followed by one youth snatching another’s iPod, and end in a five-year mandatory sentence. “Those [charges] that are less serious, those are the ones where we need a judge involved,” said Wight, a judge that might decide the adult system is not right for every youthful defendant. “Having an adult felony conviction that says robbery II for that kind of offense is a very extreme punishment,” Wight insisted.

She’s optimistic about the prospect for change, saying “there is momentum.”

Earlier this year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recalled the Governor’s Commission on Public Safety, instructing it to continue reviewing both the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This time, the governor’s instructions read: “The Commission may recommend any structural changes, sentencing changes, or allocation of funding changes that will control corrections growth, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety …”

That’s similar to what’s happening in Georgia, right down to technical assistance from the Pew Center on the States.

The 12-member Oregon Commission will deliver a report, and perhaps draft legislation, in late fall or early winter. The Oregon State Legislature convenes in February.

Photo from the Partnership for Safety and Justice.

Award Winning “Juvenile-in-Justice” Photographer to Speak on Art and the Incarceration of Young People

Tuesday, Juvenile-in-Justice: Photographs by Richard Ross will premiere at Kennesaw State University (KSU), with a public lecture by the 2012 recipient of the National Magazine Award for News and Documentary Photography scheduled at 5 p.m. in the Prillaman Hall auditorium.

For five years, Ross visited more than 350 detention centers, treatment facilities, juvenile courtrooms and maximum-security lock-down shelters, documenting the daily lives of America’s incarcerated young people. Ross’s work, organized by the Nevada Museum of Art and sponsored by the Wilhelm Hoppe Family Trust, was recently featured in Harper’s Magazine, in addition to making appearances on and Picture Dept., a site operated by the photo editors at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Earlier this year, ProPublica listed “Juvenile-in-Justice” as one of the year’s five best investigative reports on prisons. And the American Society of Magazine Editors (AMSE) and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism praised Ross’ photo essay, calling it the best news and documentary photography of 2012.

The opening reception at KSU’s Sturgis Library Art Gallery will be held at 6 p.m. The exhibit will be featured from Oct. 9 until Nov. 1, with the gallery accessible Monday through Wednesdays from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. The exhibit will also be open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m., and on Saturdays from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Youth Justice Awareness Month Returns

Four years after a Missouri mother started a homemade campaign about the judicial system that led to her son’s suicide in prison, more than half of the states are hosting events aimed at increasing awareness of the treatment of youth in adult courts, jails and prisons.

“I couldn’t fathom the treatment he received. I mean I was really scared,” said Tracy McClard, originator of Youth Justice Awareness Month, marked every October. She started the awareness campaign in 2008 with a 5k run/walk. It’s in memory of her son Jonathan, who hung himself three days after his 17th birthday rather than face 30 years in prison.

It started with a girl and a love-struck boy. After their breakup, the girl played her old boyfriend off her new boyfriend, McClard said.  Jonathan abused over-the-counter drugs, which dulled his senses. Jonathan believed that the girl was being abused, was pregnant, and that the new boyfriend was going to kill mother and fetus. McClard told her son not to believe the tales.

But Jonathan shot the new boyfriend. In his mind, Jonathan aimed only to scare the other boy, not to kill him, she said. McClard explained: “He confessed to the police because he thought the police would understand why he did what he did, because he was saving two lives, he thought.”

The new boyfriend survived, and Jonathan was charged with first-degree assault with a deadly weapon.

“The day he was certified as an adult, he went straight across the street to the adult county jail,” said McClard. “I was always reassured that while he was in the jail ‘oh, yeah, he’ll be fine,’” she recalled. But on visits he was always beaten and bruised. He got a jail tattoo because the other inmates told him he needed it to survive.

On any given day, there are about 7,500 under-18s in adult jails, according to 2009 federal numbers. Another approximately 2,500 are in adult prisons.

Instead of Jonathan heading to the Missouri Dual Jurisdiction Program, which provides counseling and education to juvenile inmates in a residential dorm-type setting open to family visits, the judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He hanged himself rather than face that life.

His mother, a runner, held the first race, knowing she could reach a wider world of people who have no involvement in the juvenile justice system.

Last October, about 1,500 people joined a run or other event in about 15 states where events were held, said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, DC-based group that is helping people organize awareness month events nationwide. CFJY works to keep under-18s out of the adult criminal justice system.

“This year we expect more than double the number of people and close to double the number of activities,” she said, plus reach an untold number of people who see campaigns on Facebook or other social media websites.

Since last year, there have been shifts to funnel juvenile offenders away from adult systems in several states including Colorado, Ohio, Texas and Oregon. Next year, Ryan expects debate in at least four states on reducing child involvement in adult courts, jails or prisons.

The treatment Jonathan received “shouldn’t be happening in Missouri,” said McClard. “Because … A piece of our system is good. It’s just the problem with it, is not all kids that get into trouble get into this system.”

Jonathan passed assessment to get into the Dual Jurisdiction Program, but the prosecutor argued against it and the judge agreed.

“I was so mad that prosecutors and judges have this type of power to just tear families apart and just throw our children away,” McClard recalled.

New federal regulations require that children be separated from adults in adult jails and prisons but also specify that the youth cannot be put in solitary confinement or in their cells all day. “We know that that [long or solitary confinement] is what happens when kids get separated from adults,” said Ryan.

States must comply with the federal rule by next August.

Ryan is optimistic that both Democratic- and Republican-led states, despite tight budgets, will continue reforms. “Recidivism research is having an effect,” she said, pointing to studies that say putting children through adult courts reduces reoffending. Both blue and red states are beginning to channel more youth away from adult incarceration.

In December, McClard and other activists and some state legislators will re-file a bill that proposes to remove barriers to the Dual Jurisdiction program.

McClard said that since her first run, “things are changing, people are becoming more aware … Conversations are starting, people are changing.”

“The way we’re doing it now is so wrong and so horrendous we cannot keep doing it,” she said. Kids are “so amenable to rehabilitation if you give them what they need.”

Photo by Campaign for Justice.

Upcoming Webinar To Explore Strategies for Improving Juvenile Detention Conditions

On September 12, the National Center for Youth in Custody (NC4YC) - launched by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) in 2010 - will host a webinar titled Creating and Sustaining Improved Conditions for Youth in Custody: Beyond the Initial External Influence.

The webinar, the first in a series that will explore and address sustainable and comprehensive means of improving confinement conditions for detained youth, focuses on ways for facility managers to create safer, more secure and more therapeutic environments for juveniles in custody.

The event will be moderated by Dr. David Roush of the National Center for Youth in Custody, and scheduled panelists include Department of Justice representative Josh Delaney; Youth Law Center Executive Director Jennifer Rodriguez; Martinez-Tjaden, LLP, founder and senior partner Orlando Martinez; and Teresa Abreu, interim director of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Illinois.

The webinar is scheduled for 90 minutes, and will begin at 2 p.m. EST. Attendees can register for the free event at the following website:

Despite Criticism ‘Beyond Scared Straight’ Premieres 3rd Season, Experts Look to Alternative Programs

The controversial A&E Network series “Beyond Scared Straight” returns August 20 for a third season. If this 30-second teaser from A&E is any indication, viewers can expect more episodes filled with inmates and prison guards yelling at, verbally abusing and intimidating at-risk teens, with the apparent goal of creating “powerful experiences” that “break down walls” so that “kids will listen,” according to the video.

But while the television show may be enormously popular with viewers – in 2011 receiving A&E’s highest ratings ever for a series premier – experts nearly unanimously agree that Scared Straight-style programs create higher incidences of recidivism and do more harm than good for teens, and they can point to nearly 30 years of research as evidence.

“It is more likely to create kids who are going to get in trouble,” Joe Vignati, national juvenile justice specialist on the Executive Board of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, told JJIE in January 2011, when the series first premiered.

scared_straight_seriesIn a 2000 report by Anthony Petrosino, Carolyn Turpin-Petrosino and James O. Finckenauer that examines the effectiveness of Scared Straight-style programs, the authors write, “Few programs were as popular or well intentioned as Scared Straight. Yet, despite such popularity and benevolence, there is little evidence to suggest that the program is a deterrent to subsequent juvenile crime and delinquency. In contrast, the evidence strongly suggests that it leads to more crime by program participants.” In fact, the study found that Scared Straight-style programs increased crime between 1 percent and 28 percent in experimental groups when compared to groups who did not participate in similar programs.

Based in part on these studies, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJPD) “discouraged” the use of Scared Straight-style programs.

A scene from the 3rd season of 'Beyond Scared Straight," courtesy A&E

But Scared Straight programs remain popular because “they fit with common notions by some on how to prevent or reduce crime (by 'getting tough')” and because  “they are very inexpensive (a Maryland program was estimated to cost less than $1 U.S. per participant),” according to a second report authored by Petrosino, Turpin-Petrosino and John Buehler and most recently updated in November 2004.

So if Scared Straight doesn’t work what are the alternatives?

Research suggests mentoring may be the best option, according to an op-ed by Jeff Slowikowski, then the acting OJJDP administrator, and Laurie Robinson, assistant attorney general for the Office of Justice Programs, published by The Baltimore Sun in February 2011.

“Mentoring programs have been found to be effective in reducing incidents of delinquency, substance use and academic failure in participating youth,” they wrote. “Research has shown that mentoring relationships that last at least 12 months or through an entire school year are most effective. Further, youth in long-term mentoring relationships tend to improve their self-esteem, social skills and outlook about their future.”

Among mentoring programs for youth, the most well known may be Big Brothers Big Sisters. But other programs focus on specific populations of youth. We Stand for Kids, for example, works with the children of incarcerated adults with the hope of ending the cycle of incarceration.

Contact with inmates or offenders isn’t always negative, however, according to research by Phillip D. Holley and Dennis Brewster. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections (ODOC) instituted a program called “Speak Out” that takes offenders directly to the kids in schools or churches. Speaking about their own experiences, the offenders “attempt to inform community youth/parents/adults, etc. about the evils of crime, gang involvement, and life in prison,” according to the study, and to do so without the intimidation of typical Scared Straight-style programs.

A similar program in Texas known as Operation Kick-It brings inmates – dressed in their white prison jumpsuits – to high schools and to meet with other groups to speak to at-risk youth without the “audience intimidation and scare tactics,” according to Holley and Brewster. It is estimated the groups of inmates make more than 1,000 appearances a year and have spoken with between 200,000 and 300,000 youth since the program’s inception.

According to Strategies for Youth, effective youth programs should:

  • Provide large amounts of meaningful contact
  • Have a longer duration
  • Be “designed by a researcher or have research as an influential component of the treatment setting”
  • Offer behavioral, skill-oriented and multi-modal treatment
  • Be gender-specific and sensitive

Click here for JJIE’s complete coverage of “Beyond Scared Straight.”

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.”