Georgia legislators found the money this year to tighten security and respond quickly to emergencies at the state's juvenile detention centers. They also declared cellphones and other telecommunications devices in juvenile prisons to be contraband.
But they couldn't find the money to pass juvenile justice reform, because Gov. Nathan Deal and others said they weren't sure how much it would cost. So the five-year effort to overhaul Georgia's aging juvenile code will become a six-year campaign when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013.
At the 11th hour, though, one provision of the proposed code rewrite was tacked onto the contraband bill and passed Thursday by both chambers.
Rep. Wendell Willard's amendment establishes a permanent limit of 30 days' confinement in so-called "short-term programs," an outgrowth of ex-Gov. Zell Miller's "boot camps" created for young offenders in the 1990s. A sunset provision in current law would have raised that ceiling next year to 60 days.
To save money, Georgia since 2005 has reduced the limit on short-term stays from 90 days to 60 days and then to 30. In 2008, STP offenders occupied more than one in five beds in Georgia's youth prisons, but the number has fallen since then.
Also Thursday, the House and Senate agreed to create a study commission to recommend services to help with the recovery of victims of human trafficking, about half of whom are believed to be juveniles. Georgia offers some such services now. The commission is to review best practices elsewhere and return with recommendations by Dec. 31.
The resolution authored by Rep. Buzz Brockway (R-Lawrenceville) noted that an estimated 400 girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia and that half of them were first exploited between the ages of 12 and 14. The FBI says Atlanta is among the 14 U.S. cities with the highest incidence of child prostitution.
In another bill passed this year, the Legislature expanded the scope of so-called "mandatory reporters" -- currently police, teachers, medical personnel and child welfare workers -- who must report possible child abuse to authorities.
The new definition, inspired by the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, will include coaches at recreation centers and at public and private schools. The clergy, with a limited exception for information obtained in a confession, also must now report possible abuse.
The provision is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform package, which also removes the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex offenses when the victim is under 16.
Bills that did not pass this year's legislative session include:
House Bill 272 by Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), which would revoke the right to a rehearing for some juveniles facing incarceration. Currently, young defendants may demand that a case be reheard by a juvenile court judge if they had been sentenced by an associate judge.
House Bill 1078, by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), which would have helped child prostitutes to vacate past findings of delinquency if they could prove they were victims of human trafficking.
Senate Bill 31 by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur), which would allow parents and legal guardians to sit in on a consultation between their child and an attorney without the child having to waive attorney-client privilege.
A proposed overhaul of juvenile justice laws could revolutionize the way Georgia treats abused and delinquent children, local officials told a state legislative panel Thursday. But, they cautioned, the reforms are doomed to failure without proper funding.
The state House Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved a 243-page rewrite of the state's juvenile code, but only after hearing dire warnings from prosecutors and a defense lawyer about the consequences of underfunding.
The bill, among many other provisions, would require that local district attorneys prosecute cases in juvenile courts. It does not state, however, who would pay the bill.
Some backers of the measure estimate it might cost up to $8.6 million, an expense that they suggested the state could share with local governments. But prosecutors said Thursday it could cost nearly $16 million to hire more than 210 new prosecutors, investigators and support staff.
Georgia pays the salaries of prosecutors in the state's 49 Superior Court circuits, with some counties chipping in more to boost salaries or pay for additional personnel, supplies or equipment. In many rural court circuits, that local supplement is already minimal.
"This bill simply would not work in my circuit," Cordele District Attorney Denise Fachini told committee members. Relying on local funding, she said, "is not workable. It's not going to happen."
Douglas County District Attorney David McDade compared the potential problems with those of the state's public defender system. The Legislature in 2005 set up a statewide funding mechanism after widespread reports of criminal defendants being sentenced to probation or prison with little or no legal assistance.
"The public defender system for many years depended on the vagaries of local funding. Ultimately," McDade said, "that system failed."
In fact, until Thursday, the House bill had exempted the state-funded public defender agency from a mandate to defend teens in juvenile court. The committee restored that requirement before passing the bill out for consideration by the full House.
That exemption, longtime DeKalb County public defender Linda Pace said, could be disastrous. She predicted that juvenile courts would wind up recruiting local attorneys with no expertise in defense work.
"A real estate attorney in Albany does not want to do juvenile defense [and] should not do juvenile defense," Pace told the committee.
A similar bill containing virtually identical language passed out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Both versions would push back the bill's effective date for a year -- to July 2013 -- to buy time to figure out how to pay for it.
Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), the bill's sponsor in the House, told witnesses Thursday they're going to have to trust legislative leaders to come up with the money. He said the legislative fiscal office would have ample time over the summer to analyze the bill and project the potential costs.
"We're going to have to get some better data," he said.
Willard said Gov. Nathan Deal's office is supportive and "will listen to reason about getting funding," but added, "I can't tell you it will be state [money]."
Judges, county government representatives and advocates all gushed over the importance of passing the juvenile code overhaul, which has been in the works for close to a decade.
"I’ve been on the bench for 23 years, and practiced for 10 years before that, and it's about time," Troup County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Key said. Committee member Andy Welch (R-McDonough) promised the years of work will not be wasted.
The committee, Welch said, will do "everything we can to make sure we have funding for this."
"Otherwise," he added, "it’s just words on paper."
Photo: Clay Duda | JJIE.org
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed 2013 budget for juvenile justice, after three years of deep cuts, could bring spending a bit nearer to 2009 levels, state officials say.
Deal's spending priorities, though, reflect a harsh trend inside Georgia's youth prisons. They house a much different population -- older, more violent and much more difficult to manage -- than they did just a few years ago.
"We certainly find them more volatile and more physically demanding," said Jeff Minor, Georgia’s deputy juvenile justice commissioner.
The trend was underscored last year when disturbances at youth detention facilities in DeKalb and Dodge counties could only be quelled with the aid of state and local police. The violence culminated in November when a 19-year-old was beaten to death at the state's Augusta Youth Development Campus. A 17-year-old was charged with murder in the incident.
The Augusta incident led to the firings of the center's director and several staffers and helped lead to the appointment of a former GBI agent and parole board member as commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Georgia's highest-security facilities for juveniles now house violent and sex offenders almost exclusively. The number of so-called "designated felons" in the YDC population has more than doubled in a decade, climbing from 349 on an average day in 2000 to 718 last year. They're older, too, with youths 18 and older making up nearly 38 percent of the YDC population, up from just 7.3 percent in 2000.
The trend has had a ripple effect on other DJJ programs, as other designated felons who are awaiting placement are housed in less-secure detention facilities alongside juveniles accused of non-violent offenses. "Kids are tougher at every stop," Minor said.
Deal's 2013 proposal, unveiled last week, calls for a $15.4 million uptick in spending after the department's budget had been slashed by $57 million since 2009. Two line items would target the tougher, older population of youthful offenders:
- $1 million to create two 12-member Security Management and Response Teams, or SMART). Members would be trained for emergency response but would also be available to shake down juveniles’ cells for weapons and contraband, review security policies and perform other duties.
- $7.7 million to open a new 80-bed youth prison in south Fulton County, the first to be located in north Georgia. DJJ had retrofitted an old detention facility for adult probationers, but had to wait for the economy to start to turn around before asking for the money to operate it.
DJJ also hopes to invest in new community-based programs for less serious offenders, including an additional $576,000 for 60 slots in new Evening Reporting Centers, which would offer structured programs such as counseling, tutoring and anger management, and $2.7 million for 50 residential beds at wilderness camps.
Juvenile justice officials say they hope Deal's budget signals an end to forced cuts that have eliminated 862 jobs and more than 900 beds for juvenile offenders in recent years.
The governor's proposals "help us get our feet under us," Minor said. Over the last few years, "we feel like we've been knocked pretty hard."
Georgia legislators will begin considering Deal's proposals Wednesday afternoon, when new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner testifies before the joint House and Senate appropriations committees.
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.