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Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite Suffers Last-Minute Death

Rep. Wendell Willard - (R) Sandy Springs - File photo

Lingering questions about the state’s cost for prosecutors and public defenders in juvenile courts scuttled the bill Monday at the 11th hour.  House Bill 641, an overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile code for deprived, troubled and delinquent children, remained stuck in the Senate Rules Committee and is not scheduled for a vote before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

Rep. Wendell Willard, sponsor of the bill, did not push for a floor vote after hearing that Gov. Nathan Deal still had budget concerns, said Kirsten Widner, policy director at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

“As best as we can discern, there are enough funding questions about some of the other priorities from the governor’s platform ... that he felt like he needed to make some tough budget decisions, and something had to give,” Widner said.

The governor’s office did not have time, Widner said, to reconcile last-minute disputes about the real cost of the reforms.

“There are such wildly different estimates and they didn’t have the time to get to the bottom of all of that, to work through all the numbers and really understand them,” she said.

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill by a year to allow for a thorough analysis of the bill’s fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill without having a good look at the price tag.

Photo by Emory Law

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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Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite Could Cost Millions, According to District Attorneys

Georgia’s juvenile code rewrite may have hit another bump on its long road to passage. In a letter signed by Athens-Clarke County, Ga., District Attorney Kenneth Mauldin, the District Attorney’s Association of Georgia asked the Georgia Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Legislation to “withhold consideration” of the bill currently in the State House containing the rewrite.

Mauldin, writing in the nine-page letter addressed to Advisory Committee Chairman Charles Clay, argues the bill places an additional burden on the DA’s office. Additionally, it would cost the taxpayers of each county at least $5.3 million each year to pay for an additional assistant district attorney and staff to handle the increased workload.

Mauldin added that the measure, HB 641, requires the prosecuting attorney to decide whether to charge a child with a delinquent act. According to the letter, only a few districts in Georgia currently follow this practice.

Mainly, however, the letter focuses on the added financial burden that could be placed on district attorneys' offices, estimated at some $20,000 million by the association.

“We would ask,” Mauldin writes, “that the committee recognize that implementation of this important measure will require a financial commitment by state and local governments — a commitment that in the present, economic climate may not be available.

Mauldin goes on to say a consensus may be reached by using a “collaborative approach.”

Kirsten Waldman, director of Policy and Advocacy at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law, said the District Attorney's Association has been a "great partner" in the effort to rewrite the state's juvenile code and that she has confidence the remaining differences can be bridged.

"We are still trying to gain the support of the association and we believe we'll get it," she said. "The more substantive disagreements have already been dealt with. Now, we're just dealing with some of the minor points.  We should be able to resolve these."

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.”

Governor Deal, Lawmakers Commit To Juvenile Code Rewrite Vote In 2012

Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — will likely be ready for a vote in the next legislative session thanks to support from Gov. Nathan Deal and some in the Georgia House and Senate leadership, according to two non-profits involved in the drafting of the legislation.

“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.  “I applaud the careful thinking and inclusive engagement that has gone into developing the Child Protection and Public Safety Act.”

Representatives from the Barton Child Law and Policy Center of the Emory School of Law and Voices for Georgia’s Children, said, this week that the Act, Senate Bill 127, received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” Voices lists the legislation's current status as "in the Senate Judiciary Committee" with "general support from the Governor's office as well as the office of the Speaker."

“From the beginning, this process has been a great example of how to build good, thoughtful and effective legislation,” said sponsor Senator Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). “We have had buy-in from all the players: from the courts to the prosecutors, defense attorneys, service providers, youth and families; pretty much every interested party.”

JUSTGeorgia, a coalition that includes Voices and Barton along with non-profit Georgia Appleseed, has led the rewrite effort as a vehicle to improve Georgia’s juvenile laws and the underlying social service systems. Barton’s Policy Director Kirsten Widner and Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney contend that the rewrite is the culmination of more than four years of research and consensus building to solve dilemmas faced by children, families, courts, detention facilities and taxpayers. SB 127, they said, is based on data-driven “best practices,” with an eye to timeliness and fiscal responsibility.

Governor Deal expressed support for dramatic criminal justice system reform at a news conference earlier this year.

It is unclear which specific Georgia Senators or Representatives have expressed support in readying the measure for the 2012 session, but Gov. Deal’s support is clear. A former juvenile court judge, he told JJIE.org earlier this year that juvenile justice should be a component of his new bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. “I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal said after a February news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.” And in a meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, Deal stated that he is willing to reassess laws that require or allow children to be prosecuted as adults and serve their time in adult prisons.

SB 127 would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into 12 articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as dependency (now referred to as deprivation), termination of parental rights and delinquency. New provisions 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 the meantime, a 2005 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.

SB 127 had a prior life as SB 292 when it 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 this session and nicknamed the “Children’s Code Rewrite” by local child advocacy groups.

Some of the many key changes in the drafts from SB 292 to SB 127 include:

  • “Deprivation” cases, those involving children who have been taken under the court’s protection due to abuse or neglect, are referred to as “dependency” cases, in line with the terminology used in the 49 other states.
  • The age at which a child could be held to have committed a designated felony is lowered from 14 to 13.
  • “Smash and Grab” burglaries are added to the list of designated felonies as a result of HB 1104.
  • First time minor weapons at school infractions are excluded from the definition of designated felony as a result of SB 299.
  • There is more flexibility in the system of services that the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is required to provide for all eligible children.
  • The definition of emotional abuse was updated to include significant risk of harm in addition to actual harm.
  • The definition of children in need of services (CHINS) was updated by:

o   Adding cross references for truancy and runaway provisions, and

o   Eliminating underage sex as grounds for alleging that a child is in need of services.

  • The definition of dependent child has been clarified to require not only that the child has been abused and neglected, but is also in need of the protection of the court.

Since the Act was first introduced in April 2009, there have been 11 public hearings to educate the legislature and the public about the proposed changes, as well as numerous stakeholder meetings to resolve those issues where disagreement existed.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Juvenile Code Rewrite Off Till Next Year

The first overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile code in 40 years will be at least another year in the making. The rewritten code — Senate Bill 127 — failed to come up for a vote by the deadline to move it on to the House this year.

But because the General Assembly works in two-year sessions, the bill is not dead and may be taken up next year without being reintroduced or reassigned to a committee.

After its first reading in the Senate this year, the bill, also known as the “Children’s code,” was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), who is also the bill’s sponsor.

“We had a hearing on the bill and discovered that some stakeholders had issues with the bill,” said committee aide Emily Fisher, “so Senator Hamrick asked those stakeholders to meet outside of the committee and work out some sort of compromise. The committee was set to hear the bill again, but we ran out of time.”

Hamrick “hopes to have worked out the stakeholders' concerns over the break this summer and fall in order to reach a version of the bill that may be passed and considered in the House,” Fisher said.

Meanwhile, supporters of the rewrite have begun talks with Gov. Nathan Deal. “There’s been some conversation with the governor because he had not been involved with the code, nor had his staff,” said Pat Willis, executive director of VOICES for Georgia’s Children, a statewide organization that supports research, communication, and advocacy for issues related to children and families

Willis said she had not personally participated in a meeting with Deal,  and  she would not characterize his response to the code proposal. But, she said, “He has been vocal about the criminal justice system and not incarcerating folks who don’t need it.”

Deal, a former juvenile court judge, told JJIE.org earlier that juvenile justice should be a component of  a new bi-partisan effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. “I would hope that we would be able to include juvenile justice in our review,” Gov. Deal said after a news conference announcing the initiative at the state capitol. “That is one of the fastest growing populations, so stemming that tide could play a major role in what we are trying to accomplish.”
And in a meeting with some Georgia Legislative Black Caucus members, Deal stated that he is willing to reassess laws that require or allow children to be prosecuted as adults and serve their time in adult prisons.

Code rewrite supporters also will soon begin talking to members of the state House, where the bill has yet to be introduced.  “Such an extensive bill will take a lot of educating on the House Judiciary Committee,” Willis said.

Proponents of the new juvenile code never expected it to make it out of both chambers of the legislature this year, Willis said.

The decision was made during the 2009-2010 term, when a version of the bill was first introduced, to start with the Senate to avoid having two major judicial bills in the same chamber, she said. A new evidence code was being introduced in the House during that term.

“Having lined up a sponsor and support in the senate, we decided to stick with that,” she said.

Willis said supporters of the new code believe it will pass next year. Although they hoped it would clear the senate in 2011, she said they are   “certainly not” disappointed “in terms of the expected overall outcome.”

After failing to make it to a vote in the 2009-2010 term, the bill, officially the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, was reintroduced on Feb 23.

In the interim, using the 2009 bill as a “draft,”’ authors worked with stakeholders to reach consensus on as many issues as possible.
The legislation would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into 12 articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights and delinquency. New provisions would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, 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 to meet its public in 2008.  In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code.
And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Editor's note: Chandra Thomas also contributed to this story.

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 JJIE.org 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.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and 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 JJIE.org has been following.

Senate Bills

  • SB 31 would expand attorney-client privilege to cover parents' participation in private conversations with defense attorneys representing their children in delinquent or criminal cases. The bill introduced in January by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur) gives the child – not the parent – exclusive rights to waive the privilege. This measure passed the Senate on February 23 and now awaits consideration by the House Civil Judiciary Committee.
  • Introduced last month by Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), SB 80 would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to give a DNA sample.  It would be analyzed and kept in a database by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The Senate State Institutions and Property Committee voted affirmatively on it last week. It now awaits consideration by the full Senate.
  • SB 105 proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) commissioner. The petition for parole could be brought by either the child in custody for a designated felony or DJJ. It requires a recommendation by a DJJ counselor placement supervisor no less than a year after the child has been in the department's custody. Sponsored by Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), it was heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) March 4 and awaits further consideration by the committee. Sen. Jones has told JJIE.org that he will support a similar bill, HB 373 (see description below), if necessary. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he says. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”
  • SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and Child Protection and Public Safety Act, has not yet made it out of the SJC, making it more likely that it won’t advance any further this session. That would be a major blow for supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004. Some local child advocates are hinting off the record to JJIE.org that some exciting updates are expected on this soon. Sen. Jones says SJC chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick tells him that supporters of the measure have been “in discussions with Governor [Nathan] Deal about this.” JJIE.org, of course, will keep you posted on any new developments.
  • SB 208, the Dropout Deterrent Act, has been assigned to the Senate Education and Youth Committee (SEYC). Introduced by Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) on March 4, this bill proposes to raise the age that children are required to be in school from 16 to 17 years of age.  The parent of a 16-year-old would be allowed to sign a waiver allowing the child to go to technical school or community college instead of a traditional public school. The measure is similar to SB 49 introduced by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell). It proposes to raise the required school age from 16 to 16.5 years of age. “That one might be debated on Crossover Day and if it gets pushed through I will support it,” says Sen. Fort. “My bill increases the age to 17, although I prefer 18.  I think 17 is a good compromise. The fact of the matter is that thousands of young people drop out and do so at a great cost to themselves and the rest of the state. If thousands don’t show up for 11th grade they’re more than likely going to end up in the juvenile justice system. More than half of those in the system now don’t graduate high school and we end up paying for them on the back end with prison and public assistance.”
  • SB 224, introduced by Sen. Jones on March 7, would limit the cases where children age 13 or older would automatically be tried for aggravated child molestation in superior court rather than juvenile court. Only cases where the victim is physically injured would immediately go to adult court. “This is a very good bill designed to keep cases in juvenile court rather than having these kids tried in adult court,” says Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “A lot of states are beginning to do this. This protects juveniles by ensuring that kids who commit these infractions, especially when it is consensual, can stay in juvenile court where their records can be sealed and they have a real shot at rehabilitation.” The bill has been referred to the SJC. “This measure has bi-partisan support and we’re looking for [another bill] to attach it to,” notes Sen. Jones. “Any time a bill comes through we can amend that bill as long as it addresses the same chapter and title. HB 373 (see description below) would be a great vehicle for us. If that bill continues moving forward we’ll attach it to 373 and let it ride along!"

House Bills

  • Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver’s (D-Decatur) Foster Children's Psychotropic Medication Monitoring Act, also known as HB 23, is likely dead for this session. It would have required the Department of Human Services (DHS) to create procedures to ensure that the psychotropic medication administered to children in foster care is appropriate and delivered with informed consent of the parent. Children over the age of 14 could also provide their own consent. The bill would have also required DHS to keep records of the medications and other therapies received or recommended by the child. Rep. Oliver has agreed to drop the measure for the time being, according to Kirsten Widner, policy director for Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. The center has received funding for a pilot program that would better track the medications foster children receive. The endeavor is a partnership between Casey Family Programs, a Seattle-based national foundation, and DHS. “Rep. Oliver has agreed to hold the bill for now and see how this pilot program goes,” says Widner. “We’re really excited to work with Casey Family Programs.”
    Adams
  • The House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee has given a favorable recommendation to HB 185, also known as the Runaway Youth Safety Act. The measure, sponsored by Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold) now awaits consideration by the full House. It would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children. It also prevents facilities that serve runaways from violating two state laws: contributing to the unruliness of a minor and interference of custody of a parent, so long as staffers either contact a parent or file an abuse report within the first 72 hours of contact with the child. “This bill allows shelters to care for the child up to three days as long as they are trying to reunite this child with their parents or guardian,” explains Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “It also requires these shelters to be registered and follow certain best practices in regard to child welfare.  These requirements are necessary to assure that those who are providing substitute care are accountable to someone for the care rendered.”
  • HB 200, which seeks to toughen the penalty for sex traffickers and improve outcomes for victims, passed the full House on March 2. The measure introduced by Rep. Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta) now awaits consideration by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Committee Chairperson Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Gwinnett) has said she will make it a priority,” says supporter Shelley Senterfitt of the non-profit, Georgia Women for Change. “We are happy that it made it over before Crossover Day, but we won’t count our chickens before they hatch. I try not to anticipate anything, but we haven’t heard anyone express concern with it.” Key provisions include an expanded definition of “coercion” in the human trafficking statute (including causing or threatening financial harm), prohibiting defense by blood relation (such as parents exploiting their children) or by marriage (such as a husband “selling” his wife). It significantly increases penalties for human traffickers who target minors. Those arrested for sexual servitude would be treated as victims, not criminals, eligible for victim’s compensation. Children being prostituted would still be arrested, but could use an “affirmative defense,” allowing the child to avoid prostitution charges.
  • HB 314 would allow children in foster care to leave school to attend court hearings in their deprivation cases without being counted absent for part or all of the school day.  Also known as "Jessie's Law," the bill passed the full House last week.  Sponsor Rep. Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta) now awaits assignment to a Senate Committee.
  • The “Good Behavior bill” also known as HB 373 pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. It passed through the House Monday – just in time to meet this week’s critical deadline. The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. A motion could only be filed after the child had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year.  Backed by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), the bill is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the SJC.
    Rep. Pak
  • HB 471 seeks to require that an objective, written assessment instrument be used to determine whether detention of a child in a Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC) or alternate out-of-home setting is appropriate for a child who has been arrested.  Sources tell JJIE.org this bill is dead mainly because the governor's office has not had time to determine if it will cost the state more money to implement it. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), who still supports the bill and intends to sponsor it again next year. The measure also clarifies that keeping a child in secure detention prior to adjudication and disposition should be done rarely and only if less restrictive options have been determined to be inappropriate.
  • Rep. Donna Sheldon’s (R-Dacula) HB 529 would expand the professionals required to report child abuse or neglect to include  reproductive health clinic staffers. The bill has been referred to the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee.

House Resolutions

  • Rep. Roger Bruce’s (D-Atlanta) HR 9 introduced last month would create a joint study committee to look into the causes and effects of teen violence.  The resolution calls for a joint study committee made up of six appointed members to issue a report including possible legislative recommendations by January 2012.  HR 9 has been referred to the House Children and Youth Committee.

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Uphill Battle Likely For Juvenile Parole Board Legislation Sponsor

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Teske

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we know about SB 105:

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

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

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

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

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.