Georgia Governor: $5 Million for New Juvenile Diversions

Governor Deal at the 2013 State of Address to the Georgia General Assembly

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is asking the state legislature to spend $5 million dollars to set up community diversion programs for low-risk youth offenders, on the model of other states.

The appropriation would “create an incentive funding program” to encourage communities to treat appropriate youth at home, Deal told lawmakers at his annual State of the State address on Jan. 17.

“We would emphasize community-based, non-confinement correctional methods for low-risk offenders as an alternative to regional and state youth centers,” Deal said, options like substance abuse treatment and family counseling.

He emphasized the chance to save money, saying every secure bed in a Youth Detention Center, a facility for longer-term sentences, costs $91,000 annually.

In tight budget times, $5 million shows a definite commitment, said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children, who praised the proposal. “It’s not money just to keep doing just what people have been doing. It’s really money that will help local jurisdictions find good ways to resolve some of the problems kids have locally.”

In Ohio and Texas, where such reforms have been enacted over the past dozen years, communities have set up programs like Deal mentioned, as well as other initiatives such as community service, restorative justice and even equine therapy.

In his speech, Deal thanked the authors of the proposal, the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council, a blue-ribbon panel of legislators, judges and attorneys that researched juvenile justice reforms over the last seven months.

A bill to make the changes in Georgia is still being drafted.

“It’s almost like a pilot,” said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. Against the big picture of a state budget totalling some $20 billion for the fiscal year beginning this July, Deal’s $5 million request is fairly little. “It’s intended to look at the communities where the largest number of commitments are coming from,” said Nesbit.

She said she worked with the Council over the summer and doesn’t believe counties will be stuck with new costs for the programs.

“It’s my understanding that it will be cost-neutral” to the counties, she said, adding that she will be reviewing the bill when it comes out.

If the Georgia General Assembly makes the $5 million appropriation, counties or, perhaps, other jurisdictions would apply for a piece. Some communities may be fairly well prepared, with juvenile service talent close at hand. Others may struggle to attract and build up the expertise to set up juvenile diversionary programs.

The state House set up a new Juvenile Justice Committee just days before Deal’s speech. With 27 members, it’s one of the legislature’s largest committees. And if it’s put in charge of hearing the bill, prospects for passage may be good: two of its members, state representatives Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) and Willie Talton (R-Warner Robins) sat on the Council.

The Georgia House and Senate begin budget hearings on Jan. 22. They must pass a budget by the end of their session, likely some time in April.

Photo courtesy of The Office of the Governor. 

Georgia Panel Vote on Key Juvenile Justice Reforms next Week

A blue-ribbon panel in Georgia is making the last tweaks to its recommendations for a statewide juvenile justice overhaul, ahead of a vote scheduled for Dec. 13.

“There are ongoing meetings and discussions about a fiscal incentive model similar to Ohio,” said state Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs at a Dec. 4 meeting of the Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform in Forsyth, Ga.

The so-called Ohio model, named for the state that pioneered it in the early 1990s, channels certain low-level offenders away from state custody and into locally-run diversion programs.  The Georgia Council may recommend some formula to give financial incentives to counties for treating or diverting kids who are guilty of certain misdemeanors or things that are only illegal because of their youth, such as truancy. Ohio counties use programs like counseling and community service.

“You will see more on that. Hopefully that can be finalized by the time the report is generated,” Boggs told the Council. “Just know that is ongoing and we have not seen the final iteration on what that will look like yet.”

The Council’s juvenile justice subcommittees released draft recommendations last month. A final list of recommendations approved by the whole 21-member Council of judges, attorneys, law enforcement and others are due to Governor Nathan Deal by the end of this year.

Other measures likely to be recommended would mandate uniform statewide methods of assessing a youth’s health and risk of further offending, setting caseloads, and data collection and measurement and auditing.

“I feel a lot of hope and confidence that the legislature will respond,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a member of the Council and noted author of child-protection legislation.

Success of Ohio-model reforms, she said, would “be based on local leadership,” adding that she hopes people like sheriffs, judges and county commissions would “take the opportunity” to do things differently.

“The bill I expect will start in the House,” said Boggs, adding that their recommendations are probably a “work in progress” that will be tweaked in the legislature.

Georgia’s next state legislative session begins Jan.  14.

Stakeholders, Foster Kids Speak Out On Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite

Former foster children speak before Georgia House Judiciary Committee members.

The stakeholder organizations involved in Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite legislation are still providing input for the sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law.

Representatives from a diverse array of child welfare organizations shared their respective views on HB 641 at a standing-room only hearing before House Judiciary Committee members Thursday.

Overwhelming support for the effort – now roughly seven years in the making – was repeatedly voiced during the two-hour gathering at the state capitol, along with critical suggestions for improvement. The rewrite has received commitments from Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership to ready the measure for a vote in the 2012 legislative session.

“I think we’re finding out that a lot of people have concerns and they’re coming together to make this a good piece of legislation,” says committee chairman Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs), of the presentations made by organizations such as the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, Court Appointed State Advocate (CASA) and Interfaith Children's Movement. “It was very encouraging to me. Hopefully by January we will have a bill that is ready to move forward.”

Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Emory University School of Law’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center says she was pleased with the outcome of the hearing and one held earlier in the week.

“I’m so pleased to see the excitement of the stakeholders,” says Widner, who has been instrumental in shaping the code rewrite legislation. “I look forward to working with the stakeholders on working out the few remaining issues. It’s a really good feeling to know we’re all here working together for the best interest of Georgia’s children.”

Voices for Georgia’s Children Advocacy Director Polly McKinney agrees.

“It does my heart good to see so many people coming together for the benefit of our children,” she says.

Some of the key concerns raised about the measure during the hearing include:

  • Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia – The provision requiring district attorneys (D.A.’s) statewide to actively participate in juvenile court proceedings, which is not currently required. “A large part of the state is uncovered as far as juvenile prosecutors,” says Kermit McManus, a D.A. over the Conasauga (Ga.) Judicial Court. “If this bill is passed as is, we will need more full-time juvenile prosecutors across the state. It really comes down to an issue of money.”
  • Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges – The provision requiring every child to be represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “In light of these tough economic times, we’ve reached a point where we’ve cut all the fat and we’re down to the meat,” says Cherokee County Juvenile Court Judge John Sumner. “I’m concerned about this unfunded mandate. Our concern is that we’ll have lawyers in court but no [money leftover to fund] services for the kids and their families.”
  • Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice – The provision requiring juveniles be relegated to secure confinement on a 60-day cycle, as opposed to the current 30-day cycle. “I’m concerned about the fiscal impact,” says Commissioner Amy Howell. “We feel that there are other options or a combination of options that would better ease the child’s transition back into the community. For example, 30 days in secure confinement followed by 30 days of electronic monitoring or time in an evening reporting center.”
  • Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – Objections to the cost of funding the provision requiring that every child is represented by a lawyer in court proceedings. “We feel very strongly that every child should be represented by legal council in every delinquency case,” says Atlanta attorney Sandra Michaels. “If a child is facing any loss of freedom he or she should have an attorney no matter what the cost. We need to make sure that we’re not being penny wise and pound foolish.”
  • Association of County Commissioners The financial cost of implementing the proposed code statewide. “We suggest a thorough fiscal note be done on both the federal and state levels,” says Debra Nesbit, the organization’s associate legislative director for health and human services and public safety and the courts. “We think we deserve, and the taxpayers deserve, to see what the true cost is going to be.”

Highlights of the hearing were the closing comments made by three former foster children, who shared their very personal accounts of the perils they experienced first-hand on both the delinquency and deprivation sides of the state’s juvenile system.

Kendra Brownlee, 25, shared her treacherous ordeal of abuse and enduring 14 foster home placements in one calendar year, along with the delinquency she carried out as a result of her experience. Twenty-year-old Michael Powell, highlighted the critical need for sibling groups to be placed together. At one point, he says, he and his three brothers were apart for four straight years. Giovan Bazan, 22, of the Georgia Youth Empowerment Initiative non-profit, indicates that he was in the foster system from the age of 11 months until one year ago. He ultimately ended up in the custody of the state Department of Juvenile Justice for delinquency. His time in confinement was extended beyond the designated length by several years, he says, due to a lack of availability of suitable housing placement options.

All three agree that the code rewrite is a positive move for Georgia, but they also share concerns that the voice of the children affected often gets drowned out in the bureaucratic process.

“I was really frustrated by [the presenting organizations] focus on cost,” adds Bazan. “In light of these tough economic times it is to be expected, but if you have the best interest of the children at heart you will make whatever changes that need to be made no matter what.”

Powell and Brownlee share similar views.

“A lot of people don’t see the foster kid’s point of view; they only see a few random incidents,” Powell says. “They don’t know what’s really happening in the system. I’m glad I could be here today. I feel like I was making an impact for all of the foster kids still in the system.”

Adds Brownlee: “Foster kids need required mentors to help us navigate through life and to make better choices,” she contends. “How can we do better if no one is there to teach us? We need more wraparound services.”

Brownlee, calls the code rewrite “little steps” toward the need for “big change.”

The provisions in HB 641 would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  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 for the public in 2008. In 2005, a state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Another version, known as SB 292, was introduced in the Georgia Senate in 2009, but failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced in the last legislative session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.




Juvenile Justice, Criminal Justice Reform On Governor Deal’s Radar, Policy Staffers Say

Criminal justice reform – including juvenile justice – is among Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s top priorities during his tenure, according to a key member of his policy staff.

“As a former juvenile judge this is certainly one of his passions,” said Public Safety Policy Advisor David Werner during the “A Conversation with the Governor's Policy Staff” event hosted Wednesday by the non-profit Voices for Georgia’s Children. “His son is also a juvenile court judge in Hall County.”

The governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy Erin Hames and Health Policy Advisor Blake Fulenwider also participated in the forum attended by about 85 representatives from child advocacy organizations at the Georgia Freight Depot building.

Werner said the bi-partisan commission Gov. Deal assembled earlier this year to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by January will likely step up its efforts starting next month. The effort is being led by the Pew Research Center.

“There has been talk of breaking down into committees and juvenile justice could be one of them,” he said. “We haven’t defined it all yet.”

The commission is charged with providing solutions to Georgia’s high incarceration rate, the fourth highest in the country. Alternatives to incarceration and a review of Georgia’s mandatory sentencing are among the topics the group will review.

“I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal told shortly after announcing the initiative at the state capitol in February. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”

During the event, Werner also mentioned that the governor’s staff “looks forward to working with” the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and other child-focused organizations on Georgia’s longstanding juvenile code rewrite.

In March, representatives from the Barton Center and Voices confirmed that the rewrite, Senate Bill 127, a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law, has received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.”

“The time has come for us to rethink how our state is responding to children who have found themselves in trouble with the law,” said Gov. Deal in a news release on the measure.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Werner echoed a similar sentiment when asked about Georgia’s reform effort.

“We need to change the way we look at criminal justice,” he said. “We need to look at making some changes in regard to sentencing and rehabilitation.”

Many attendees at the Voices forum, including Barton’s Policy Director, Kirsten Widner, applauded the governor’s policy staff for participating in the event.

“It’s great to have a governor who has made his office so accessible,” she said. “I was glad to hear them speak specifically about the juvenile code rewrite.”

Jeanetta Alexander, with the Parent Training Information Center, which trains parents on issues including bullying and educational opportunities, said she wanted to hear more specifics on some of the governor’s policies, but she was pleased overall with the event.

“I’m glad that governor Deal has given this opportunity for us to hear from his staff,” she said. This was a great opportunity. It was really good."

Gov. Deal Signs Human Trafficking Bill Into Law

Courtesy Juvenile Justice Fund

The human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims has been officially signed into Georgia law.


A small crowd of supporters gathered around Governor Nathan Deal Tuesday afternoon as he signed HB 200 at My Sister’s House in the Atlanta Mission. The legislation was introduced this year by Rep. Ed Lindsey (R-Atlanta) and passed within the same legislative session, which wrapped up last month.


The governor and his wife, First Lady Sandra Deal, shared encouraging words to the families of trafficking survivors during the signing event. Both commended child advocates for remaining vigilant in their work to eradicate child sex trafficking.


The bill’s signing is being touted as an especially critical victory because Atlanta is a known hub for human trafficking. Representatives from Street GRACE, a non-profit consortium of churches that provide volunteer support and advocacy initiatives for at-risk children statewide, say about 375 girls are exploited in Georgia each month, with the majority of the illegal incidents occurring in Atlanta. Within the same time frame, the organization estimates, about 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly purchase sex from teen girls in the state.


Key provisions in HB 200 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 when coming forward to 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.


Rep. Lindsey’s bill built upon the foundation established by a failed measure introduced last year by Sen. Renee Unterman, who also supported HB 200. Sen. Unterman’s bill had pushed for children 16 and under to be treated as victims and not criminals in prostitution cases.  Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens had members of his staff work with Rep. Lindsey in strengthening the legal framework for HB 200, in hopes of helping it avoid a similar fate.


On the heels of the legislative victory, supporters of the measure have told they will begin focusing their efforts on ensuring the law gets implemented and enforced.

Revived Runaway Act, Good Behavior Bill Close Out 2011 Legislative Session

Governor Deal addresses the State Senate on the last day of the 2011 session.

When Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold) passed Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner in a crowded hallway in the state capitol Thursday evening, he couldn’t resist passing on kudos. “You’ve had a good day,” he said, leaning in with a smile and an outstretched hand. “You’ve had a good day too,” she responded, with a grin and firm shake.


That exchange, in many ways, summed up the reaction many state child advocates and members of the Georgia General Assembly have expressed about the official close of the 2011 legislative session. And it’s not so surprising.

The last full day wrapped up with House Bill 373, also known as the juvenile “Good Behavior bill” and a revived version of the "Runaway Youth Safety Act," both approved and headed to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office for signatures. Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs) introduced a House version of Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — this week. Representatives from child advocacy organizations Barton and Voices for Georgia’s Children, also confirmed this month that the Senate version, SB 127, had received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” That news came on the heels of the state Senate’s unanimous vote in support of HB 200, the human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims.

“The Georgia General Assembly made time for children's issues,” said Widner, who spent most of the day with her eyes fixed on the closed-circuit television screens perched near the Senate and House chamber doors respectively. “They took their time with the human trafficking, runaway and DJJ’s (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice) 'Good Behavior' bills and made some real progress this session.”

Rep. Weldon, still basking in the glow of his afternoon victory, agreed.

“The Georgia Runaway Youth Safety Act moves Georgia law forward and ensures that children who could not get services now have a lot more outlets in the state to obtain help,” he said of SB 94, which would allow runaway shelters to provide emergency housing and services to minors for 72 hours while parental notification is pending. “This authorizes good people to provide services for a forgotten group of children who need help.”

Rep. Weldon said after his version of the Runaway Act, also known as HB 185, failed to make the Crossover Day deadline, its “language” was added into Senator Bill Heath's (R-Bremen) SB 94 gun bill, allowing it to pass in time for the last day.

“He agreed to let us to take out his gun bill language and replace it with ours,” Rep. Weldon explained, referring to the Runaway Act. “So essentially, the bill died in the House but was revived by a sub-committee in the Senate.”

Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney expressed mixed emotions about the 2011 session.

“Overall better than usual,” she said, noting the challenges budget cuts posed for lawmakers and state agencies. “We didn’t get all that we wanted passed, but there was a fair amount of discourse with the governor and that’s very helpful. Any session where there’s a lot of fighting over what (funds or programs) has to be cut, you’re going to have a tough time.”

The state capitol bustled with activity on the last day of the 2011 session.

McKinney applauded the “Good Behavior Bill,” calling it “a more holistic approach to child well-being” and “reward-based as opposed to punitive.” She also described the fact that both the House and Senate introduced versions of the Code Rewrite this session as a “major accomplishment” that will allow stakeholders to “work on it together in 2012.”

Although the special session is slated to begin in August, Widner noted that discussions are already underway for plans to host joint hearings on the Code Rewrite -– including both the House and Senate judiciary committee members -– as early as June.

Sen. Emanuel Jones’ (D-Decatur) juvenile parole board bill, which proposed to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the DJJ commissioner, did not advance this session. Still overall, he said, some strides were made in the area of juvenile justice in Georgia.

“The important thing about this session is that the governor took an interest in tackling issues regarding our prison population; youth offenders as well as adult offenders,” he said.

Sen. Jones and other child welfare advocates also touted the governor's new bi-partisan initiative aimed at overhauling the state's criminal justice system as another important legislative milestone this session. State legislative leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb), Attorney General Sam Olens and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville) joined the governor in February in announcing plans to assemble a new special council that they will all take part in. The legislation introduced by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) calls for a council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee no later than Jan. 9, 2012.

“The governor’s commitment to look into SB 440 and SB 441, the laws dealing with mandatory minimums (sentences) for certain serious offenses, is really what this [council] is designed to do,” said Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “I would have liked more progress on these issues, including on the juvenile code, but unfortunately sometimes you have to face the political headwinds.”

Sen. Jones’ fellow Black Caucus member Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) said she too believes that juvenile justice issues “fared well” in 2011. Her only request was that the governor ensure that diverse representation is a priority on his bi-partisan council.

Lt. Governor Cagle introduces Gov. Deal on the Senate floor.

“People of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, so I just hope that people of color are included in the process,” she said. “But I am excited about this step and I am hopeful.”

Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) wasn’t nearly as optimistic about the session.

“These bills and initiatives are some of the more positive things to come out of the legislature in a long time, but those are just structural things,” he said, in between votes on the Senate floor. “As a state we need to do much more to protect children. We still have hungry children; undereducated children that lack health care. The solutions to those issues lie in making a real investment in children. That’s the only way to prevent those problems.”

He also expressed disappointment over measures that failed to pass.

“We did not raise the school attendance age, we cut funds for K-12 education and to be honest we’re looking at ‘tweaking’ the criminal justice system,” Sen. Fort said of the general assembly as a whole. “At the same time we gave a $26 million tax break to Delta (Airlines) and gave several million dollars to [aerospace and aircraft manufacturing company] Gulfstream. The fact of the matter is that we’ve had more discussion about Sunday liquor sales than investing in our children.”

Crossover Day Update

Crossover Day – the second longest work day on the Georgia General Assembly calendar – has wrapped up leaving some key juvenile justice and child-focused bills dead for the 2011 session.

SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children, are among the measures that didn’t meet the crucial deadline. VIEW SOME OF THE KEY JUVENILE JUSTICE AND CHILD-FOCUSED LEGISLATION.

“It had not made it out of [the] Rules [Committee] in time and that’s very disappointing,” says HB 185 sponsor Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold). “It looked like it was going to progress.”

HB 265, which supports Governor Nathan Deal’s recent effort to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee, was overwhelmingly approved by the House, 169-1. Governor Deal has told that he hopes juvenile justice will be a part of that review due out next year.

SB 80, which would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to submit a DNA sample for analysis in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation database, did make it in time. The grueling 11-hour workday included its passage in the Senate. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor, the measure would help solidify convictions on felony charges and identify suspects in other crimes. Twenty-four states and the federal government have similar programs in place. Supporters, including sponsor Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), tout it as an effective way to close cold cases and free people wrongly convicted of crimes.

A House vote on Sunday liquor sales, meantime, is stirring up debate about underage drinking. Religious conservatives on the Republican side joined some black Democrats in opposing SB 10 in a 32-22 vote. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is among the vocal opponents of the measure now headed to the House.

“Young people drink on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, so this is going to increase underage drinking,” says Sen. Fort, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “There are going to be more [car] crashes due to this.”

Sen. Fort says supporters should consider the many unintended consequences. “This will contribute to more violence against women and children; that’s why I voted against it,” he says.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) disagrees with his fellow Black Caucus member. “This bill is about local control; empowering people to make choices in their community,” he says. “If their local jurisdiction puts it on ballot they will have the opportunity to vote on it; if their jurisdiction doesn’t then they won’t. This is not about promoting underage drinking. Creating a choice is what we passed today.”

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) says assertions that SB 10 will contribute to more minors drinking are “absurd.”  He too contends the measure is about choice.

“Right now there are those who choose to drive to a bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on Sundays and consume alcohol and can drink to their heart’s content; this is about giving the very same right to their counterpart who wants to drive pass that same bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on a Sunday and instead buy some alcohol from a package store and consume it at home. ”

Sen. Fort

Cobb Alcohol Taskforce spokeswoman Alisa Bennett-Hart shares Sen. Fort’s concerns.

“The trends do support that young people drink more on weekends, so adding an extra day of access to it definitely will have an impact,” she says. “If adults did not provide alcohol to them, this would not be a problem.”

Bennett-Hart say the non-profit, which combats underage drinking in Cobb County primarily by targeting the actions of adults, is not a “prohibitionist group” opposed to all alcohol consumption.

“We believe it is the right and privilege of anyone over the age of 21,” she says. “We have a problem with adults who provide alcohol to underage children who do not have the right and privilege to consume alcohol.”

Rep. Mitchell says issues, such as the ones raised by Bennett-Hart are better addressed in other ways. “We have laws in place for that,” he says.

Sen. Jones echoes a similar sentiment. He says it is unfair to place so many concerns on one bill. “This doesn’t address underage drinking, alcoholism or kids being able to buy alcohol,” he says. “Those are issues that still impact and affect our community. We are the ones who have to protect our kids from that. We have to ensure that businesses are not selling alcohol to underage kids. Those laws are already on the books and should be enforced.”

Bennett-Hart predicts that “adding another day” of alcohol sales will be problematic for already overextended agencies charged with cracking down on underage drinking and sales. The Taskforce, she says, will be using next month’s “Alcohol Awareness Month” designation to educate Cobb County leaders and residents about the organization’s concerns.

Going up against the powerful alcohol lobby ultimately will be an uphill battle, Sen. Fort predicts.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he says if and when the measure ever goes before voters. “These liquor folks are going to put a lot of money into a referendum. The opposition’s not going to have that kind of money to pump into TV commercials and ads like they will.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at 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 People, Essence and Atlanta magazines.

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 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 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 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.”, 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.”
  • 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 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.


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at 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.

Child Advocates Celebrate Juvenile Code Rewrite Bill Advancement At Reception

The introduction of a long-awaited juvenile code rewrite in the state Senate earlier in the day added to the celebratory mood of an evening reception held in honor of Governor Nathan Deal’s nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies.

Many child advocacy organizations turned out for the event hosted by Voices for Georgia's Children.

The Blue Room at the Georgia Freight Depot was all abuzz with the news that Sen. Bill Hamrick’s (R-30) SB 127 was likely headed to a Judiciary Committee hearing, possibly as soon as next week. “We are thrilled to know that it has been introduced,” said Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner. The organization was actively involved in drafting the legislation. “We feel that the work we’d done over the summer with our stakeholders has led to a much stronger bill. It involves some compromises among our key stakeholders and we are glad to have Sen. Hamrick as our sponsor. The Judiciary Committee has been very supportive and all of the members have signed on as co-signers of the bill.”

Pat Willis is the executive director of VOICES for Georgia’s Children, a statewide organization that supports research, communication, and advocacy for issues related to children and families.

Even the governor weighed in after he briefly introduced his “2011 Leadership Team For Children.” Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell, Department of Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese, Governor’s Office for Children & Families Executive Director Jennifer Bennecke and Office of the Child Advocate Director Tonya Boga were among the honorees. “I haven’t had a chance to look at the final version, but I look forward to seeing what they recommend that we do,” the governor said of the measure. “As a former juvenile court judge, I certainly see the value in ensuring that our juvenile justice system is functioning properly.”

Commissioner Howell echoed a similar sentiment. “The juvenile code rewrite certainly has the potential to dramatically impact what we do,” Howell said. She’d represented DJJ in stakeholders meetings during her previous tenure as Deputy Commissioner. “I look forward to having the opportunity to read the current version of the bill. I really appreciate how the stakeholders have responded to the feedback on it. I am optimistic that the current version will reflect our new thoughts about the juvenile system. I look forward to participating in the process.”

Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children Executive Director Normer Adams said the legislation is long overdue. “The new code is much more proactive in regards to public safety and better ensures that children get the services that they need, rather than criminalizing normal adolescent behaviors,” he said. “That’s the best part.”

Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Sharon Hill agreed. “The current version, just improves due process for kids; it gives an opportunity to provide more justice for children and families,” said Hill, a former judge. “Clarity, consistency and fairness will lead to due process for kids.”

Hill said she is impressed with the bill’s rapid progression since the rewrite began in 2004. “For it to be this far along in this amount of time is remarkable,” she said. “It’s a natural consequence to the broad outreach to the stakeholders.”

Gov. Deal poses with some of his nine newly appointed directors of child-focused state agencies, including DJJ and DHS.

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. With an outgoing governor, the timing was likely not quite right, Hill said. She’s now hopeful that having a new administration in place will be an asset to SB 127. Governor Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms, she said, could also be a plus. “With the leadership team in place now there’s going to be a new freshness to it that will give it some momentum to get passed,” she said. “We hope that it will also provide some momentum for it to be implemented. That’s the hard part.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at 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.

Gov. Deal Says Juvenile Justice Will Likely Be Part of New Prison System Reform Initiative

Governor Nathan Deal says juvenile justice system reform will likely be a critical part of a new bi-partisan initiative aimed at overhauling Georgia’s criminal justice system.

“I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal told shortly after a news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol Wednesday. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”

State legislative leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb), Attorney General Sam Olens and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle joined the governor in announcing plans to assemble a new special council that they will all take part in. Legislation introduced today by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) calls for a council to study criminal justice reforms and make  recommendations to a joint legislative committee no later than January 9, 2012. Rep. Neal’s HB 265 was touted as the “backbone” of the commission charged with providing solutions to Georgia’s high incarceration rate, the fourth highest in the country. Alternatives to incarceration and a review of Georgia’s mandatory sentencing are among the topics that the group will review.

“We spend approximately $6,003 a year per university or college student; We spend approximately $18,000 per person to incarcerate an adult each year,” Gov. Deal said. “That math simply does not work for Georgia.”

Improving rehabilitative efforts and lowering prison costs are among the main objectives of this bi-partisan commission that will take a “systematic, comprehensive look,”  Gov. Deal said.

Lt. Governor Cagle said criminal justice reform is long overdue and he welcomes this opportunity to engage in a "serious discussion" about criminal activity in the state.“If it leads to a safer society and a more effective way to protect society, I’m all for it,” he said.

Lt. Governor Cagle says the primary role of government is to protect its citizens but “the punishment should match the crime” committed. He voiced his support for more sentencing options for judges, calling it  “good for our society.”

Justice Hunstein too applauded the bipartisan initiative. “We are united in our conviction that Georgia can no longer spend over $1 billion a year maintaining the fourth highest incarceration rate in the nation,” she said.

In is address, Gov. Deal also noted that:

  • Nationally 1 of 100 adults are behind bars.
  • Nationally 3.6 percent of children have a parent behind bars.
  • In Georgia, one adult in every 13 is under some form of correctional control.
  • Georgia spends over a billion dollars per year incarcerating some 60,000 adult inmates.

Speaker Ralston applauded Rep. Abrams and Rep. Neal and called the new initiative an example of “Georgians working together to solve problems.”

Added Speaker Ralston: “For those who say this is about being soft on crime, we are exercising sensible and responsible solutions to a serious problem in Georgia.”

Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) called the  announcement “historic” and “exciting.”

“Representation from three branches of government shows that we can all come together and address serious problems in the state,” said Rep. Thomas Morgan, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “My only request is that they diversify the representation of the group. With people of color being disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, we need to make sure that we are seated at the table.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at 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.