Ripe for Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series.

The number of delinquent youth remanded to the Arkansas Division of Youth Services during the fiscal year that ended in July was the lowest in at least two decades, according to figures recently released by the DYS.

Juvenile judges committed 451 youth to state custody in fiscal year 2017 — a 14 percent decrease from 2015, when commitments to the DYS reached 526.

The commitment rate does not reflect every youth confined in a facility in Arkansas. It excludes kids detained in county-level juvenile detention centers, as well as those who were transferred to the adult criminal justice system. Nonetheless, the decline in DYS commitments, which appears to be driven by local efforts in several of the state's most populous counties, has some advocates cautiously hopeful that Arkansas may be poised to finally overhaul its juvenile justice system.

Over the last two decades, most states have dramatically reduced the number of youth locked away in secure facilities, including Arkansas' neighbors. Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana all lowered their juvenile confinement rates by double digits from 1997 to 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Arkansas' rate decreased by just 8 percent over that period, despite an emerging consensus that confinement is usually a counterproductive and overly expensive response to delinquency. The question now is whether policymakers can translate recent local successes to statewide reform.

"There are parts of the state where things continue to be a problem and others where we're making great progress," DYS Director Betty Guhman told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network. The DYS is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

A top aide to Gov. Asa Hutchinson with a background in social work, Guhman previously served as chief of staff during Hutchinson's tenures in Congress and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The governor named her to run the DYS on an interim basis in July 2016 and made the appointment permanent that September. Guhman seems to channel Hutchinson's preference for cautious, deliberative incrementalism rather than bold calls to immediate action — but she is quietly aiming for big changes.

"The whole juvenile code needs to be revisited," she said. "Do you want to start picking at this or this or this — or do you want a whole rewrite? I think most everybody is supportive of a complete rewrite. ... We're really trying to do that for the [2019 legislative] session, working with judges, providers, other advocates. ... Let's see what we can all agree on and try to move forward."

"We" means three principal players. First, the DYS, which oversees Arkansas' eight residential juvenile facilities, as well as diversion and aftercare programs. Second, the juvenile judges whose courts constitute the "front door" to the system. Third, the nonprofit providers that contract with the DYS to deliver services, from managing residential facilities to administering diversion and aftercare.

In recent years, reformers in Arkansas have largely focused their efforts on the county level rather than the state, partly because of a lack of continuity in DYS leadership since former director Ron Angel retired in 2013. Angel actively pushed for legislation intended to reduce the use of confinement by steering funding toward community-based programs and away from secure facilities. The effort foundered in the state Senate, however, and Angel departed soon afterward.

Angel's successor, Tracy Steele, lasted in the job for a little over a year, as did the next appointee, Marcus Devine. Commitments to the DYS, which declined during Angel's six-year tenure, rose from 2013 to 2015.

Pat Arthur, a lawyer formerly with the National Center for Youth Law, worked closely with Angel from 2007 to 2013 to craft reforms aimed at reducing confinement. "When Ron Angel was in charge of DYS ... there was a genuine effort to downsize facilities," she said. "I worked my whole time there trying to reduce the beds."

"All of the prisons there should be closed," she added, referring to the DYS residential facilities. "They're all antiquated, large institutions that are being shown around the country, in practice and also through research, to be ineffective in providing the kind of rehabilitative programming that youth in trouble with the law need to get back on a positive track and contribute to their community."

After Angel left the DYS, Arthur said, "there was just not the same kind of commitment ... to changing the system to one that relies less on incarceration and more on keeping youth in programs that work in the community. There was lip service perhaps, but nothing concretely that was done to advance it."

Arthur retired last December and said she was not familiar with developments in Arkansas in the past year. But other advocates expressed optimism about the agency's direction under Guhman — who, unlike her two predecessors, is expected to stick around.

"I think there's reason to be hopeful, but I think there's a lot of frustration — among not just advocates but folks within the system themselves — about the pace of change," Jason Szanyi, a deputy director at the D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, said.

Since 2013, Szanyi has worked with juvenile courts in two Northwest Arkansas counties, Benton and Washington, to implement a program called the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, which has helped reduce detention in favor of community-based alternatives such as mentorships, family therapy and evening reporting centers. JDAI is active in more than 300 sites throughout the country, and Pulaski County will begin implementing the program in 2018.

In other jurisdictions, the use of a new risk-assessment tool has reduced confinement by helping judges identify various needs and risks of youth. Faulkner County Circuit Judge Troy Braswell said the screening process has been "a game changer" since it was rolled out in his court in 2016 as part of a pilot program.

Between 2015 and 2016, Braswell said, "we cut juvenile confinement by 23 percent in our district. And then for the fiscal year, as far as DYS commitments, we cut our commitment by 31 percent." He noted that the juvenile crime rate seems to have dropped as well: "We also had a 7 percent reduction in charges filed by the prosecutor.

"Kids are still going to get detained when it's appropriate, but that can't always be the answer," Braswell said. "As courts individually, and then as a state, we've got to do a better job of providing services to the family earlier on in the case." Braswell also chairs the Youth Justice Reform Board, a body created by the governor to make recommendations on juvenile justice issues.

Such reforms have reduced both the number of youths detained locally in juvenile detention centers and those committed to DYS facilities — but only among those courts that have embraced them. Many other judges continue to lock up large numbers of kids each year, meaning confinement numbers have remained high for the state as a whole.

"Arkansas has not seen the same level of reduction in commitment to state custody as many other states," Szanyi said. "There's a lot of inertia in terms of how things have been done in the state, and how they've been done from county to county. That can be tough to counter without a coordinated effort to reform the system. ... You need someone at DYS who has a long-term vision for juvenile justice reform.

"Director Guhman is someone who has a longstanding relationship with the governor and understands the issues," Szanyi said. "Our hope is that ... with strong leadership at DYS, we can start tackling some of the issues that need to be looked at in order for Arkansas to see some very significant and beneficial changes in the system."

Tom Masseau is the executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that performs regular observations at the eight juvenile treatment centers and correctional facilities run by the DYS. He attributes the recent decrease in commitments mostly to individual judges choosing community-based alternatives; broader statewide reform has remained more talk than action.

"The holdup is that everybody likes the idea of reform, but nobody wants to roll up their sleeves and do it," he said. "I think when Ron [Angel] left, everything just kind of fell apart, and you had some directors who were appointed who had the best intentions but for whatever reason just couldn't move it forward. Now, I think with Betty Guhman in there — at least based on my meetings with her, she seems very committed. ... It's just contingent upon the legislature giving leeway to the division.

"I see us moving more toward some serious reforms," Masseau said. "At least, that's what we're going to be pushing for."

Braswell said the push for reform must continue at the local level, but he, too, sees new potential for the state to lead rather than follow.

"I think up to this point, DYS has been doing what the juvenile justice system has been doing," he said. "In my conversations with Director Guhman, I think they understand they're going to have to be more targeted in their contracts with the providers and making sure that judges and providers are working together to provide the services that are evidence-based and have a track record of working. To me, they understand that things have to change."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at

Do We Really Want a New Juvenile Code in Georgia?

As an attorney and recently retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, it was disappointing that the new comprehensive Georgia juvenile code legislation failed to pass.

Watching many well-intended professionals take years to finalize proposed legislation, only to see it fail due to questions regarding compromised provisions and lack of resources, was disappointing to say the least. To see a forward-thinking adult criminal justice package pass through the Georgia General Assembly within one year, should make all of us wonder about the real reasons for our joint disappointment this past session.

It has been recently announced by Gov. Nathan Deal that juvenile justice will be the new focus of the Special Council on Criminal Justice, which was instrumental in bringing about those need reforms in the adult system.

JUSTGeorgia, the coalition of advocates working for reform in the juvenile system, praised the governor’s move. But hope is not enough without a new approach for those in the juvenile justice system as we look to influence this new effort.

There are many responsibilities within the juvenile justice system and each area focuses on issues that can be difficult, long standing and sometimes frustrating.

Ideally, we should have a system that is designed to recognize the special status of children in our society yet hold them accountable for misbehavior and law breaking. Concepts such as “in the best interest of the child” and “due process” are touchstones but sometimes drive our system in different directions.

What is in the best interest of a child depends on the viewpoint of the person evaluating it. The lines between treatment and punishment, safekeeping and detention often blur. It is the soft lines between the definitions that fuels controversy within the system. The motive and good will of those of us working within the juvenile justice system cannot and should not be challenged.  The nobility of the mission is too great to believe anyone intentionally works against the best interest of youth. So why then do we disagree on the best approach on so many important issues?

An example of this disagreement is found in the failure to convince Georgia lawmakers to pass the juvenile code rewrite legislation this past session.

The primary failure was of the juvenile justice partners to coalesce and provide a strong united front within the General Assembly and to the governor’s Office. Child serving state agencies did not agree on CHINS (Children in Need of Services) section of the new code, prosecutors argued that the costs of serving juvenile courts was not included in the bill and judges could not agree on a way forward.  An honest effort was made by the advocacy groups to bring everyone together, but compromises diluted the legislation and full support of the measure within the juvenile justice community was tepid at best.

Part of the answer lies in the framework that our system is built on.  At the heart of it is a legal system that intentionally is adversarial. It is a system that balances the state interest in enforcement of laws and norms against the individual’s rights. Prosecutors seek justice for victims while defense attorneys seek to protect constitutional rights and advocate for the innocence of the accused. Judges are to strike the balance between the two and apply the law to the facts.  Probation and Corrections administrators enforce the orders of the court and meet treatment needs of the child.

Each of these components of the system has a role to perform and resources dedicated to that role. When the resources do not adequately support the role then tensions escalate within the components of the system. When the performance of one role is perceived to hinder the role of the other then tension enters the system.

A system that agrees on basic principles and what treatment, accountability and punishment look like will be more successful.  No longer should we agree to disagree. We owe it as professionals to work out the issues and respect each other’s role. Ask us only to do the tasks we can do well and where the resources do not match the need then let’s advocate together.

One united juvenile justice voice should be heard in Georgia not a separate call for one component of the system over the others.  Gov. Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice may be taking a fresh look at the juvenile code rewrite, but a unified juvenile system will have a better opportunity to influence the decision process.

Let us resolve to find a forum for this new conversation and be a willing partner to help families help their children.

Robert Rosenbloom is an attorney and retired Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice with over 30 years of experience in juvenile and criminal justice.

Governor’s Budget Concerns Sunk Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite but Cost of Not Passing it Could be Higher

Volumes of the Georgia CodeBudget concerns stalled juvenile justice reform in Georgia this week, as the Georgia Senate declined to take it up in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session. But what about the costs of not passing juvenile justice reform?

The proposed 246-page Child Protection and Public Safety Act would have strengthened programs for foster children, established community-based help rather than incarceration for many troubled juveniles and bolstered their legal representation, among many other improvements.

Those reforms, which advocates say would save taxpayers money, may now be pushed back at least another year due to questions about the expense associated with other aspects of the bill.

The act, for instance, would require that the state help children become independent once they age out of the foster-care system on their 18th birthdays. Those young adults would get housing subsidies, tutoring, job skills training and other support until age 21 and emergency assistance until age 23.

Those kids once were completely on their own when they turned 18, and some drifted into homelessness and petty crime. Now they are eligible for some of those services, but the state is not required to offer them to every child.

"It means kids who are the most difficult and most challenging and need the services the worst probably won’t get them," said Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and a key advocate for the bill.

Pat Willis, executive director of the non-profit Voices for Georgia's Children, noted those programs would have helped kids who are currently leaving foster care, not hypothetical cases.

"This isn’t some unknown kid who might need services," Willis said. "This is a child whose name we know."

The bill drew unanimous support from the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its sponsor decided Monday not to seek a Senate floor vote after learning of Gov. Nathan Deal's fiscal concerns.

“The governor knows we need significant reform in our juvenile justice system, and he credits the legislators involved for their excellent work on this bill," Deal's director of communications, Brian Robinson, said Tuesday in a written statement. "He agrees with the direction of the legislation, but right now there are too many unknowns about the costs involved. Estimates vary widely, but we do know that it comes with a hefty price tag. The governor would like to see that issue resolved, so that we can move forward on these needed improvements.”

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill to July 2013, hoping to win enough support for passage while allowing for a thorough analysis of its fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill at all without having a good look at the price tag.

Retired Conasauga Circuit district attorney Kermit McManus, now a lobbyist for the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Council, warned Tuesday that the state had failed to deliver on earlier funding promises.

When state officials reduced short-term juvenile detentions from 90 days to no more than 30, it committed to pay for locally-based alternative treatment programs across the state. But, McManus said, funding wasn't there to follow through on that promise.

"That part is a scary part to prosecutors," McManus said.

Relying more on treatment and less on detention for delinquents "probably would be a better system," he said.  "We haven’t seen it and we are skeptical."

District attorneys called particular attention to the bill's requirement that a prosecutor handle every delinquency case in juvenile court. They said DAs would need $15.9 million a year to pay for the personnel and operating costs, nearly twice what a study commissioned by juvenile advocates had estimated.

Supporters of the bill said many costs projected by prosecutors and others really covered the cost of complying with the current juvenile code. Advocacy groups didn't have the money to rebut detractors' claims or to calculate the financial benefits of the bill more precisely, said Willis of Voices for Georgia's Children.

"We had some money to look at costs but we never had the kind of resources that would have taken the deep dive," she said. "As non-profits, we just have not had the resources to do that major analysis … [of] not only what does it cost, but what does it save."

Willis said the coalition pushing reform, while disappointed, made progress this year in forging agreement on Georgia's future policy for abused and delinquent children.

"We take some energy from the fact that we did build consensus among all of the stakeholders that this is the right law," she said. "We do have a lot of confidence that the leadership is ready to work with us. We’re certainly ready to work with the leadership."

Photo by Emory Law

Funding for Juvenile Code is Major Concern as Legislature Winds Down

ga state house squareWildly divergent estimates of the pricetag for Georgia's proposed juvenile code rewrite continue to swirl around the Capitol as lawmakers return for their last three days of 2012.

The 246-page bill has cleared the state House and is expected to come before the full Senate this week, possibly Tuesday, with only minor changes. Gov. Nathan Deal's office continues to crunch the numbers to help him decide whether the state budget can absorb the expense.

"We have solid support in the General Assembly, and we are hopeful the governor will support it as well," said Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. "If he's not on board, you can't achieve the goals of the legislation."

The new code, which updates and reorganizes decades of laws addressing delinquency and deprivation cases, would authorize a broad range of services for so-called "Children in Need of Services," who often fall through the cracks now and wind up in the juvenile justice system. The annual cost of those programs, and others to help foster children, is projected to be about $6.4 million.

The disagreements focus on the bill's requirement for prosecutors -- a role often filled now by probation or intake officers -- in any Juvenile Court proceeding where a youth faces detention. Those accused youth, who often waive the right to an attorney now, would also be guaranteed the chance to consult an attorney before deciding whether to waive representation.

Agencies that would provide the lawyers to prosecute and defend youths say court-related costs could top $20 million a year. Advocates pushing the bill estimate those annual expenses will run no more than $8.9 million, perhaps much less.

Much of the money in that higher estimate would help address existing needs, not new requirements of the bill, Widner said.

"We have an underfunded system and people see this as an opportunity to recoup some of the funds that are missing," she said. "We're already doing these things. It's not that new."

Under current law, though, district attorneys must handle juvenile cases only if a judge asks. Prosecutors argue that it's unrealistic to expect county governments, particularly in rural areas, to shoulder the cost of what they label an unfunded mandate.

"The counties are struggling mightily … and they’re simply not going to do it," said Kermit McManus, a retired district attorney from northwest Georgia who lobbies for the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Sponsors of the legislation have delayed the effective date of the new code to July 2013 -- a one-year reprieve. They are seeking passage of the bill now and asking state and local court officials to have faith that the money will follow.

Prosecutors say they've heard similar promises before for state funding of mental health and other community-based programs for troubled youth.

"That's never happened – anywhere," McManus said. "If the state says it will provide the money, we believe it’s never going to happen."

Even in courts that already have prosecutors, the district attorneys say they'll need more money. Fulton County DA Paul Howard, for instance, said he would need three times as much as the $850,000 that the county set aside for his office's Juvenile Court work this year. That would pay the salaries of five more attorneys, six investigators, two victim advocates and 12 support staffers.

In neighboring Douglas County, the district attorney's office stopped handling Juvenile Court prosecutions in the 1990s due to other demands. Now, Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said, the county pays an attorney to prosecute those cases.

For about $85,000 a year, Walker said, the arrangement is less than ideal.

"He does everything," she said. "He does filings, he does petitions, he does investigations, he does service of the subpoenas."

District Attorney David McDade estimates he would need an additional $386,000 to assume those duties, an amount that the judge said is not unreasonable.

"He's looking at breaking out those functions the way they are typically broken out in a district attorney's office," she said.

The judge acknowledged those expenses are not mandated by House Bill 641, even though "we would love to see that kind of funding."

Advocates point out that the bill would not require that district attorneys handle every Juvenile Court prosecution, but would also allow arrangements like Douglas County has now.

Widner, the Barton Center's lobbyist, said she understands the anxieties associated with making big changes in the juvenile courts without deciding exactly how to pay for it.

But, she added, "those are budgeting decisions that are made separately from ... looking at what the public policy should be."

At the county level, though, court officials know that those funding decisions will determine whether the new juvenile code is a success.

"Part of the tension here is what’s to be done by the state and what … by the county," Judge Walker said. "When you’re the person who's responsible for [implementation], the last thing you want to see happen is a code go into effect without the funding."

In Georgia, Two Differing Opinions About how to Revamp the Juvenile Justice Code

Most of the people who know anything about Georgia’s four-decades-old juvenile code agree that it needs changing. There is, however, great disagreement over how, and how much, it should be changed.

You hear this in the halls of the state House, in offices of juvenile court judges, in conference rooms of advocates.

It does not, however, often break into the open.

Today, the JJIE brings you two differing opinions on the subject, something that will likely prove to be a major issue when the state Legislature begins its work next year.

Judge Robert Rodatus is a juvenile court judge in Gwinnett County, Ga., in suburban Atlanta. He has worked in his current position since 1991 and has held a number of positions in the state’s Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Kirsten Widner is director of Policy and Advocacy for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. In the recent past, she has become one of the key representatives for groups and individuals working towards revision of the state’s juvenile code.

Proposed Revision of Georgia Juvenile Code is Flawed

Support Proposed Revision of Georgia Juvenile Code

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Robert Rodatus Kristen Widner

I would like to take a few minutes to state my
thoughts on the status of Georgia’s juvenile code
revision and the course of action I intend to follow.
The short version is, I see no point in continuing
with the “stakeholder meeting” approach to reaching
a compromise on the proposed bill, HB641...
We are deeply saddened by Judge Rodatus’ op-ed on the juvenile code rewrite project and his views about the process that has been used to refine the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, which in its most current form is House Bill 641. His remarks do not reflect the wider community of juvenile court professionals...
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The Many Ironies of Juvenile Detention

I have found over the years that many naysayers of detention alternatives for juvenile offenders are lacking in the body of research supporting alternatives to detention and are ignorant of the laws governing detention.

Some are politicians, victim advocates and even law-makers. I am more disturbed with the considerable number of prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement unfamiliar with these restrictions -- and they are directly involved with kids in the system.

I have been doing some work in North Carolina on detention alternatives over the past few months. I am impressed with the leadership of the secretary of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice Linda Hayes, her Chief of Staff Robin Jenkins and Deputy Secretary Mike Rieder. They are determined to do the right thing with kids despite the shoe-string budget.

They can showcase many outstanding outcomes from using evidence-based practices. Take for instance Union County, outside of Charlotte. They pursued and got a MacArthur Foundation Action Network grant to develop strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the detention of kids. They have developed many tools that have produced outstanding results.

The coordinators of the effort in Union County are Karen Tucker and Becky Smith. They shared with me that early on in their effort they learned that law enforcement knew very little about the juvenile laws around detention. This frustrated police and sometimes made the relationship between the court and police difficult.

Tucker and Smith worked with law enforcement to introduce specialized training on juvenile laws -- especially detention. They found that whether law enforcement agreed philosophically or not with some of the prohibitions on detention for kids, police were less frustrated with the system knowing that the law is the law. This frustration is reduced more when the training also introduces the research in support of the legal prohibitions against detention in many circumstances.

In Georgia up until 1989, the only provision in the code defining the use of detention stated that a youth can be detained if he or she requests detention, is a risk to persons and property, is a risk to take flight from the jurisdiction of the court or has no parent or guardian.

In 1989, this came under attack in the state Legislature as too broad and consequently increasing the unnecessary detention of kids. This attack resulted in the passage of a statute requiring that restraints on the freedom of a child -- including detention -- cannot be used unless there is probable cause to believe the child committed the offense and there is clear and convincing evidence to impose a restraint.

The Legislature went further and dropped property offenses as a reason for detention prior to adjudication and defined harm to others as "serious bodily injury." Simple assault and simple battery for example are not detainable offenses unless involving family violence or there is a history of violent conduct. Property offenses are not detainable unless inherently dangerous to others such as residential burglary and theft of a motor vehicle. These changes marked a dramatic shift in Georgia's philosophy toward detention of kids -- theoretically making it more difficult to lock-up a kid.

Just in case this was not clear enough, the Legislature gave absolute mandates that kids cannot be detained to punish, treat or rehabilitate. This makes sense within the scope and purpose of juvenile justice and due process. Kids have a presumption of innocence, the same as adults. Even if adjudicated, the kid may not be found delinquent.

Here lies the philosophical distinction between adult and juvenile courts -- just because a kid commits a delinquent act doesn't necessarily make him delinquent. Many of us can recall our own delinquent mischief. We didn’t get arrested or go to jail or appear in court -- but we're doing all right despite our teenage antics.

In order to preserve the integrity of the court, the code prohibits judges from giving into the demands of victims, police and the community. From time to time I read a blog or hear a comment railing against the court for releasing kids. I simply don't respond. I have taken an oath to uphold the law. So I do -- I simply ignore the ignorant. I like this law!

The irony in these demands to "lock-em up" is that some of these proponents changed their tune when their own teenager got arrested. How quick we abandon our principles when it hits home. But that's OK -- they now understand the law. Good kids do stupid things and "but for the grace of God, there go I."

Another irony in this debate whether to lock up or release a kid is that the law requires us to seek alternatives to detention. The law states that, "Whenever an accused child cannot be unconditionally released, conditional or supervised release that results in the least necessary interference with the liberty of the child shall be favored over more intrusive alternatives." There should be no debate -- the law is clear.

I think it's time we get back to basics -- the law. We need to do what Union County did and regularly train police on juvenile practice and procedure. Defense attorneys should always be asking in court this one question: If an alternative is available and can reduce the risk, than why not use it?


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."

Long road to new Juvenile Code

The next session of the Georgia General Assembly is months away but advocates are busy polishing a major bill that could affect children and their families across the state. In fact, they’ve been working on this legislation—a complete revamp of the state’s juvenile code—since 2004.

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. To be considered in the term that begins next January, it must be reintroduced.   Its supporters want to make sure it’s in good shape.  “Our goal is to work through the 2009 bill as a draft,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University, “and to have an edited version for the next legislative session.”

“We’re going to take the opportunity to make some technical changes and changes all the stakeholders can agree to,” said Mindy Binderman, director of government affairs and advocacy of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a policy advocacy group.

A hearing on the proposed code is set for June 28 at the Capitol.  More meetings and hearings are expected over the summer.

The legislation in the works would reorganize Georgia’s juvenile law into twelve articles, grouping provisions by type of case, such as deprivation, termination of parental rights, and delinquency. New provisions would substantially change how some cases are handled.   Among dozens of proposed changes are these:

  • A requirement known in shorthand as one judge/one child would provide that, whenever possible, the same judge would handle all cases involving a child, whether deprivation or delinquency.
  • Judges could sentence children guilty of designated felonies, such as carjacking or aggravated assault, to as little as six months of restrictive custody instead of a minimum of 12 months, giving them more flexibility.
  • The burden of proving that a child is competent to be tried would fall on the state, rather than requiring the child to prove incompetence.
  • Status offenders—juveniles who commit offenses such as running away or truancy that are considered crimes only for juveniles, not adults—would fall under the new category of Children in Need of Services. Emphasis would be on getting to the cause of the problem rather than on punishment.

Under the proposed code revision, a multi-disciplinary team would work with the child’s family under the presumption that children don’t run away unless something is wrong at home, and aren’t chronically truant if school is going well.  “It’s looking at the child in context,” said Widner. “How can we help this child be more successful?”

Some provisions have already changed in a process that began six years ago when the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, asked for a rewrite of the juvenile code.  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.   Through Georgia Appleseed, lawyers from some of the state’s top firms canvassed Georgia’s ten judicial districts, interviewing hundreds of “stakeholders,” from judges to juvenile delinquents and their victims. The results were reported in “Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code,” released by Georgia Appleseed in November, 2008.

“We found a huge consensus that the code is broken and needed to be fixed,” said Widner of the Barton Center, “and some consensus about how to fix it but not as much.”

The research, and later feedback on the model code, came into play in writing the legislation that became Senate Bill 292, introduced by Senator Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) and 23 co-sponsors in April, 2009.  To increase chances for a smooth passage, some provisions were dropped or altered between the model code and the senate bill.   The model code, for instance, said all cases involving children 13 to 17 years old would start in juvenile court—even those involving the so-called “seven deadly sins,”  felonies that now automatically go to superior court—although cases could be transferred to superior court.   Critics expressed concern that the move would mean being softer on serious crime.  “That was probably one of the most hotly discussed reforms of the model code,” Widner said.  The provision was removed.   “Leaving it in at this time might have killed the bill,” she said.

Some widely supported changes could be hard to implement because of increased costs at a time when the state budget is shrinking because of reduced revenues.  Advocates have already made some tough choices.

One provision said a child would be considered a juvenile in delinquency matters to age 18—up from 17 in the current code. The change would have brought delinquency law into line with deprivation law, which covers children to age 18.  But the age in the senate bill was left at 17 because of concerns that the juvenile justice system would be unable to handle the potential influx of older offenders.  “We very much at JUSTGeorgia believe in that change,” said Widner, “but it’s an expensive change. Even though the long-term cost would probably be significantly lower because it would cut down recidivism, it would require a shift of funds to juvenile court.”

In a 2008 response to the model code, a representative of the state Department of Juvenile Justice estimated that adding 17-year-olds would increase the population of juvenile offenders by as much as 30 percent, at a cost of $83- to $124 million a year. Capital costs would also be incurred to add space to juvenile facilities, the department’s response said.   “We didn’t disagree philosophically with the idea,” said Rob Rosenbloom of the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We just let people know what the budgetary impact would be.”

One controversial proposal was modified in the hope of picking up support.  Under the model code, a child could not waive the right to an attorney. The Senate bill, intended as a compromise, would allow a child to turn down representation—but only after talking to a lawyer.   Still the provision raises concerns.  “I think a child’s having an attorney is always a good thing,” said Judge Bryant Henry.  Henry is President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia. “An attorney is an independent party who can assess what’s going on. But what if the parents don’t want to hire an attorney? . . .One of the practical effects of that is going to be the responsibility that’s going to impose on the public defender’s office. It’s a good idea, but it’s going to have some financial ramifications.”

The JUSTGeorgia team is proud of the way the proposed rewritten code is being handled, although the process is slow and sometimes messy.    “The whole concept was to get some consensus among stakeholders that changes should be made, and what those changes were, before the bill was introduced,” said Binderman. “We continually meet with stakeholders of different opinions to get their buy-in.”

Expected heavy turnover under the gold dome next session will present advocates of the new code with yet another challenge.    “While we’re optimistic,” said Binderman, “we know we have a big road ahead just to keep educating legislators about the change.”

Gayle White was a reporter for 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts

Read Senate Bill 292:  The Child Protection and Public Safety Act

Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code

Georgia Teens Argue for New Juvenile Code

Atlanta's online teen news forum, Vox, has joined JustGeorgia in a campaign to change the state's juvenile laws.   Here's part of the latest Vox post from 19 year Giovan Bazan:

The lives of countless youth are dictated by a juvenile justice system that is flawed and a code that is severely outdated. Up until recently, teens have been idly watching as their lives change for the worse either because they didn’t know how to speak out and demand change or they were unable to.
Currently, the Georgia General Assembly is convening at the State Capitol, revising the laws that affect all of us teens. The Georgia Code’s Juvenile Court Provision (Juvenile Code) is a series of laws that governs how our state responds to minors and their families in cases of abuse, neglect, violations of criminal law by children and other circumstances requiring court intervention. The laws were enacted in 1971, long before any of us teens were ever born.