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Which Bills Survived Crossover Day in the Georgia Assembly?

A proposed overhaul of Georgia's juvenile code remains alive at the State Capitol, but bills addressing school attendance and over-medicating foster children died this week as the Legislature completed its 30th day. Or, if not legally dead, the bills are on life-support.

The General Assembly designates Day 30 of each year's session as "Crossover Day," the deadline by which the state House or Senate must pass a bill and send it over to the other chamber. Bills that don't make it are dead, but can be revived by tacking the language onto another measure that remains under consideration.

The Senate's version of the juvenile-code rewrite -- a mammoth, five-year, 243-page reorganization and update of laws dealing with delinquent, unruly and neglected children -- died Wednesday without a vote by the full chamber. But the House last week unanimously passed a nearly identical version, which now becomes the vehicle for senators to continue working on the bill.

The Legislature has 10 more official days before adjournment -- plenty of time to reconcile relatively minor differences on the bill between the two chambers. The House wants the state-run public defender system to continue representing youths in juvenile court who are facing possible incarceration. The Senate bill would have removed that duty due to cost concerns, leaving it up to county governments to pick up the tab.

Also staying alive is a Senate bill to toughen the law against contraband in juvenile detention facilities. The bill, pushed by the state Department of Juvenile Justice, would add cellphones and other electronic devices to the list of proscribed items. It also more clearly defines the area where such items may not be brought in from outside. Violators could face up to five years in prison.

The Senate this week also passed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for an eyewitness to fail to report sexual or other abuse of a juvenile. Similar bills have been introduced in statehouses across the country in the wake of the recent scandal at Penn State University, where football coach Joe Paterno lost his job over the school's failure to report an alleged sexual assault by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Falling by the wayside Wednesday, though, were bills dealing with child prostitution, truancy and oversight for medications given to foster children.

Child prostitutes who have been victims of human trafficking will have to wait at least another year to see if they might be able to have their records expunged. A 2011 law allows juvenile court judges in delinquency hearings to consider evidence that youths were victimized by pimps or traffickers, but the House this year did not act in time on a bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) to allow that evidence to be used to vacate past findings of delinquency.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) hasn't given up on two of her bills. House Bill 821, which didn't get a House vote despite the support of the Education Committee, would have held parents criminally accountable if their kids are not enrolled in school or have accumulated five or more unexcused absences. Violators would face up to 30 days in jail.

Oliver said Thursday that she's working on several avenues to keep the bill alive by attaching the language to another one.

The Decatur lawmaker says she's also hopeful that state officials, without a legislative mandate, will begin to monitor mood- and behavior-altering medications given to Georgia's foster children.

The federal government requires that states come up with plans to make sure foster kids are not over-medicated with such psychotropic drugs, but Georgia has not yet done so.

Oliver's bill, which would require the state Department of Human Resources to develop those guidelines, never made it out of committee. The department, she said, is already discussing the issue with private advocacy groups.

"My primary goal was to get the attention of DHS publicly" and to nudge the department toward compliance, Oliver said.

Last month, a year-long study concluded that Georgia exceeds the national average in prescribing psychotropic medications to children in foster care. The report, prepared by the Barton Child Law & Policy Center, called for clearer rules for obtaining informed consent of patients, oversight standards and a ban on the use of psychotropic medications as "chemical restraints" or for the convenience of caregivers.

As the New Legislative Session Begins, One Bill Looms Above the Rest

Monday marks the first day of the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly and while many bills will be considered and debated on the floor of the state Capitol, for those interested in juvenile justice, one piece of legislation gets all of the attention. The juvenile code rewrite, in the form of two separate bills, SB 127 in the state Senate and HB 641 in the House, was reintroduced last year, working its way through various committees and stakeholder meetings.

This year, advocates are guardedly optimistic the code rewrite, officially known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, will pass the Legislature and land on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk for a signature.

“That’s our objective,” said Voices for Georgia’s Children Executive Director Pat Willis. “We have great support from the sponsors and committees where the tough work gets done.”

But, there is still work to be done, says Julia Neighbors, JUSTGeorgia Project Manager at Voices for Georgia’s Children and a lead on the code rewrite.

“It’s not a done deal,” she said. “For the advocates that want to see this happen, our work is still not done.”

Advocates for revision of the code argue that changes need to be made to the current law to address everything from legal representation of children, to juveniles being charged as adults for certain crimes to, restoring judicial discretion to both judges and prosecutors.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is also working with lawmakers and stakeholders to refine the code rewrite, according to a statement by DJJ spokesperson Jim Shuler.

“The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice continues to work with our partners to pursue a positive legislative agenda for 2012," Shuler said in the statement. "The juvenile code re-write bills that are currently proposed, although they represent many improvements, still include some areas that leave room for clarification. DJJ will continue to work with all parties to resolve those legislative issues for this session.”

Sen. Bill Hamrick first introduced legislation containing the code rewrite in 2009 and reintroduced the bill in 2011 after review and revisions by legislators and stakeholders. In 2011, Rep. Wendell Willard introduced a similar bill into the House.

The code rewrite is based on a proposed model code developed by the Young Lawyers Division of the Georgia State Bar and includes significant input from stakeholders and the public. Lead agencies include JUSTGeorgia and Georgia Appleseed. The juvenile code handles everything from delinquency and truancy to abused and neglected children, Willis said.

“It’s about children from birth until age 17 and the issues they encounter as they are referred to the juvenile courts,” she said.

The code, she continued, “is the place where we really spell out how we respect children. It’s all spelled out in the code.”

The offices of the Governor and the Speaker of the House were also very cooperative, Willis said.

According to Neighbors, stakeholders were also vital to the process.

“We have had tremendous input from stakeholders,” Neighbors said. “Advocates have been meeting with stakeholders since April in preparation for the upcoming legislative session.”

And as the General Assembly meets again, the code rewrite continues to be refined, she said.

“This is not the time to be silent,” she said. “It’s important to talk to legislators and juvenile court judges and tell them why it’s important to you.”

Advocates aren’t the only ones hoping the bill will pass this year. Rep. Willard, who introduced the House version of the bill is also optimistic, according to a staff member who wished to remain anonymous because she is not authorized to speak on the subject.

Following a recommendation from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission that released its report in late 2011, there has been some speculation whether the Legislature might establish a permanent Criminal Justice Oversight Commission that could also be tasked with a review of Georgia’s juvenile justice system.

However, that legislation is unlikely because, according to Rep. Willard’s staff member, other juvenile justice legislation is “being held back so that lawmakers and stakeholders can focus on the code rewrite.”

Prefiling of bills in the General Assembly began Nov. 15, 2011. So far, no new juvenile justice legislation has been filed.

Georgia Governor to Establish Permanent Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal pledged to sign an executive order establishing a permanent Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council to study the state’s criminal justice system. The move comes on the heels of a report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that makes recommendations to lawmakers about methods for reducing the high cost of incarceration for taxpayers.

The report by the Special Council also recommends the new Oversight Council address juvenile justice reform.

“Council members believe that a full examination of the state’s juvenile justice system should be undertaken to develop recommendations for reform,” the report says.

Currently, lawmakers are debating a rewrite of the Georgia Juvenile Code, however it is unclear what role the new Oversight Council might play in the process.

State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who served on the Special Council, says the Legislature may have to wait on a recommended survey of the juvenile justice system.

“Clearly the governor is putting a lot of emphasis on this effort,” she said. “But I think we will get through this session before we evaluate any of the other recommendations, including juvenile justice.”

The Special Council, made up of 13 lawyers, lawmakers and judges, called for “improving community-based supervision, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety.”

According to the report, with nearly 56,000 inmates Georgia has one of the largest adult prison populations in the country costing taxpayers more than $1 billion annually, up from $492 million in 1990. Despite this, recidivism rates have remained steady at nearly 30 percent for the last 10 years.

Most of that growth, the report says, comes from “policy decisions about who is being sent to prison and how long they stay.” Drug and property offenders, many of them identified as lower-risk, account for 60 percent of all prison admissions.

In order to reduce the prison population and the cost to taxpayers, the Council recommends an overhaul to sentencing guidelines and the establishment of drug courts and other accountability courts.

Technical support for the Council was provided by the non-profit Pew Center on the States. It is not yet clear if that partnership will continue with the new Oversight Council.

"We don't yet know if we will be providing technical support to the state beyond this year," said Jason Newman, who works with the Public Safety Performance Project, which is part of the Pew Center on the States.

House Bill 265 established the Special Council. In a press release following the release of the report, Gov. Deal said, “We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars. While we’ll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results.”

But according to an Associated Press report, despite the governor’s enthusiasm, lawmakers will not consider all of the Council’s recommendations in the upcoming legislative session beginning in January.

Deal is credited with making sentencing reform a priority, the AP story says.

"I actually think we have a governor that is interested, and to be honest that matters,” state Sen. Curt Thompson, a Democrat from Tucker, told the AP. “I'll give him credit for having interest in this.”

The Special Council also recommends a sentencing “safety valve” that would allow judges to ignore mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking cases, as well as some other violent felonies.

“Having served as a trial judge, I know there are really differences in the same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of the crime," Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, a member of the committee, told the AP

But Deal says the process of reform is only just beginning.

“We still have a long way to go in this process, as my office engages with legislators and concerned Georgians on where we go from here,” he said in a press release. “Let’s get to work on promoting recovery and rehabilitation rather than a system that simply hardens criminals.”

Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE.org

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Allison Ashe, Renee Unterman: House Needs to Pass Runaway Bill Now

Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman tell us what’s wrong with the current law on runaways and why the House needs to pass an updated version, H.B. 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, now.Allison Ashe, Executive Director of Covenant House Georgia, and state Sen. Renee Unterman

Four months after her 15th birthday Natalie ran away from home, fleeing the sexual advances of her mother’s new boyfriend.  A few days later, local law enforcement picked her up and returned her to her mother. The Division of Family and Children’s Services came to investigate. Upon finding no actual physical abuse, the mother and daughter were left to sort out a very complicated situation alone. Natalie ran again, and this time, fearing another visit from the state, her mother did not call for help.

That was almost four years ago.

Since then, Natalie’s story has taken many dark turns. For the first several months she was able to find refuge with the parents of friends, but when her welcome ran out she found herself on the streets of Atlanta. She spent time hiding in parks, under bridges, in gym locker rooms after closing time, and anywhere she felt she would not be noticed.

Unable to find shelter or food, Natalie was thankful when a seemingly friendly young man approached her and offered her a place to stay. He was a good caretaker and boyfriend at first, but then he asked her to help pay her way by providing sexual favors to his friends, thus beginning the sexual exploitation and abuse that will likely haunt her for the rest of her life. Just a few days after her 18th birthday, Natalie found her way to Covenant House Georgia, where she was given shelter, food, counseling, protection and the hope that she could leave the darkness of her past behind.

Children like Natalie often see the worst side of our best efforts to help them. They grow up with parents unable or unwilling to meet their needs or quick to raise a hand in anger. They see a child protection system that failed to reach them in the moments when they needed it the most. And when they give up on waiting for those around them for help, they leave home in search of something better only to find that even those organizations that would like to protect them are unable to as a result of state law.

With nowhere to go but the streets and without food or shelter, these children become easy targets for sexual exploitation and recruitment into the commercial sex industry.

A report by the National Runaway Switchboard shows that approximately half of runaways in the United States leave home because of family abuse and conflict. Once on the streets, however, they often find little relief from abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, within 48 hours of running away, youth are likely to be approached to participate in prostitution or another form of commercial exploitation. Nearly a third of children who flee home or are kicked out of their homes each year, eventually engage in sex in exchange for food, drugs or a place to stay, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Studies have conclusively linked running away to commercial sexual exploitation.

Georgia is certainly not immune to these problems.  Each year the state’s courts handle approximately 2,600 cases involving runaways. While the abuse that leads them to run away is similar to what runaways experience around the country, it is possible they are even more likely to encounter exploitation here in Georgia because state law is preventing shelters from serving them.

Under our current law, it is a misdemeanor to assist children who have run away because it may contribute to their continued status as a runaway and interfere with parental custody. While the law does not specifically mention shelters and was likely intended to serve as an instrument to protect children from predators, it is written so broadly that it can be used against the very organizations that seek to protect runaways. As a result, shelters face a tough choice: Risk criminal prosecution for protecting runaways or turn away children at their door knowing they often become victims on the street.

While these laws focus on runaway youth, the tragedy extends beyond those children who decide they must leave home. Children who are kicked out of their homes by their parents are turned away as well because shelters cannot reliably distinguish between a child who has run away and a child who has been thrown out. Regardless of the reasons that place a child on the street, they are just as likely to become the victims of sexual exploitation when shelters are prevented from opening their doors to them before their 18th birthday.

To help address this problem, state Rep. Tom Weldon has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that will help get runaways off the streets and into safe, temporary shelter.

The Runaway Youth Safety Act allows shelters to provide emergency services to runaway youth without fear of criminal liability. The Act provides a limited exemption from criminal liability for registered or licensed service providers that contact a child’s legal guardian within 72 hours of the child’s acceptance of services or make a child abuse report pursuant to the mandatory reporter statute.

If the child’s parent cannot be reached or if the child will not disclose his or her parent’s name, DFCS must be contacted within 72 hours. Since Georgia does not have a statewide reporting system for runaway and missing children, the Act also provides one of the only mechanisms for heartsick parents to locate their children.

The State Report Card on Child Homelessness tells us Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in child homelessness.

We can do better. Natalie needed better. The Georgia General Assembly needs to pass HB 185 and open the doors to shelters for the safety of our children.