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Obama Announces Plans to Reduce Gun Violence

President Barack Obama announced his support for a range of gun control policies this afternoon that addressed not only the threat of mass shootings but also the recurring gun-related violence that takes dozens of lives in the country every day. After his speech, he signed multiple executive measures ordering some immediate changes, while four children who had written to urge him to take action against gun violence stood behind him.

“This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged,” Obama told an audience that included parents of children killed by a gunman last month at an elementary school in Connecticut. “We can’t put this off any longer.”

The president backed universal background checks for all gun purchases, including those sold privately and at gun shows, a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, increased hiring in law enforcement, and initiatives on mental health and school safety. The last ban on the sale of semi-automatic weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and expired after 10 years.

The President acknowledged that major changes to existing federal law require action by Congress – a politically difficult proposition. Congressional Republicans vehemently oppose stricter federal controls over gun ownership, and even some from the president’s own party, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have indicated resistance to considering such legislation.

“To make a real and lasting difference, Congress too must act,” he said. “These are common-sense measures. But they will not be easy to enact.”

He urged Americans from all areas of the country, especially those with strong traditions of gun ownership, to contact their legislators to show support for an assault-weapons ban.

“Ask them what’s more important: Doing whatever it takes to get an ‘A’ grade from a gun lobby that funds their campaign, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade?” the President asked to applause from the audience.

He believed in the rights of gun owners and sportsmen, Obama said. “I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal bodies should conduct more research into the causes and impact of gun violence, he said. “We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science behind this epidemic of violence,” Obama said.

Obama will nominate the acting head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, to be its permanent head, he said. The agency, which enforces federal gun laws, has been without a permanent administrator for six years.

Prompted by the murder of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in December, the president’s announcements come after a month-long task force led by Vice President Joe Biden put forward recommendations this week on steps the federal government can take to reduce gun violence.

Since late December, Biden and his staff have consulted with dozens of stakeholder groups, including child welfare and juvenile justice advocates, into the causes of gun violence and research-based actions to prevent it.

About 30 people in the United States die in gun-related incidents every day, according to Jon Vernick, the co-director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Led by Vernick, about 20 gun policy experts with backgrounds in medicine, public health, law and public safety released their own list of policy recommendations yesterday, reaching consensus at the end of a two-day summit at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, opened the summit.

The summit’s recommendations, which broadly echo the measures announced by Obama this afternoon, included banning the sale of assault weapons, strengthening background checks and other measures to keep weapons out of the hands of high-risk people, such as those convicted of violent crimes and those with mental illness. A juvenile convicted of a violent crime should wait until age 30 before being allowed to buy a gun, the experts recommended.

Summit participants also called for the federal government to appoint a permanent leader of theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces federal gun laws, and to fund more research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Justice on the factors behind gun violence and ways to address them.

The national debate over gun control sparked by the Connecticut school shootings is already showing results at the state level. Yesterday, the New York state assembly approved, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law, a wide-ranging bill banning sales of assault weapons and tightening measures meant to keep guns from people with mental illness. New York is the first state to change its gun control laws after the Connecticut shootings.

More states could follow. At least five state governors have mentioned gun violence in their state-of-the-state speeches this month, which outline top policy concerns for the coming year, according to Governing magazine, which is keeping a running tally of governor proposals on the subject.

Not all of those governors mentioned stricter gun control. Republican governors Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Butch Otter of Idaho focused on improved mental health services, according to the magazine.

An overwhelming majority of Americans, 85 percent, support strengthening background checks on gun sales to include those sold privately and at gun shows, while 55 percent support a ban on assault-style weapons, according to a poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

The poll surveyed more than 1,500 adults in the second week of January, more than two weeks after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Photo courtesy of The White House.

Georgia Governor Signs Law Making Synthetic Marijuana Illegal in State

Last week, Georgia’s Governor, Republican Nathan Deal, signed into law a new bill that makes all forms of synthetic marijuana illegal within the state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Under the new law, synthetic marijuana substances, commonly referred to as Spice orK2, are considered Schedule I drugs, making their possession and sale a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Deal said he applauds the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the Georgia General Assembly for quickly putting the legislation together, calling the passage of the law “a pressing need” for the state.

“These synthetic substances pose an enormous risk to our public safety,” Deal said shortly after signing the law. "As the usage has dramatically increased, instances of violence, bodily harm and even death have risen with it.”

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan told reporters the GBI is currently instructing law enforcement officials to notify local retailers that synthetic marijuana substances are illegal, urging them to destroy the products under officer supervision. Retailers that do not comply may have their inventory seized and face possible prosecution.

The state banned synthetic marijuana in 2010, but many manufacturers were able to circumvent the law by slightly modifying their product formulas.

Most synthetic marijuana products contain a chemical compound that mimics the effects of marijuana, which is combined with various forms of dried vegetation. Prior to the passage of the new law, products of the sort were legally sold by many Georgia retailers, primarily at gas stations and convenience stores.

Synthetic marijuana products are currently illegal in several states, including New York, Illinois and Oregon.

In 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration reclassified several synthetic compound substances as Schedule I drugs. According to DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart, there is a need to regulate and control such substances even further.

“Young people are being harmed when they smoke these dangerous ‘fake pot’ products and wrongly equate the products' ‘legal’ retail availability with being ‘safe’,” she stated in an official news release last year.

You can read more of JJIE's coverage of synthetic marijuana here.

Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE.org

California May Ease Restrictions on Media Access to Prisoners

The California State Assembly is considering a bill that would ease restrictions for members of the press to interview prisoners. The legislation, known as AB-1270, passed unanimously out of the Public Safety Committee Jan. 10 before being referred on to the Appropriations Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Public Safety Committee Chair Tom Ammiano, requires the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to permit reporters to interview inmates personally in California's prison unless the warden determines the interview poses an immediate threat to public safety or the security of the institution. Reporters must request the interview in advance. The warden then has 48 hours to respond.

Once an interview has been granted the warden is required to notify the victim or their family of the interview at least two days prior.

The new law also allows reporters more freedom to record interviews. Previous legislation prohibited the use of cameras and other recording equipment. AB-1270 would allow the use of recording equipment that prison staff have inspected before entering the prison.

Supporters of the bill include the ACLU, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Photo by Flickr | billaday

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.

Mississippi Joins 38 Other States, Raises Juvenile Age to Eighteen

The Mississippi state sealAn amended law that took effect July 1 made Mississippi the latest state to rethink how youth under the age of 18 are handled in criminal court. The new measure prevents most 17-year-old misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenders from being tried as adults. Certain felonies including rape, murder and armed robbery may still warrant charges in the adult court system.

Two other states, Connecticut and Illinois, passed similar reforms earlier this year bringing the national total to 39 states that view juveniles as any individual below the age of 18, according to a report issued last week by the Campaign for Youth Justice.

“This is a good news report.” Liz Ryan, director of the Campaign for Youth Justice, -- a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit focused on the issue -- told USA Today. “This really shows that there is a turning tide in the way states are treating kids in the juvenile justice system.”

Some juvenile advocates consider the amendment a positive change in the treatment of youthful offenders, but Mississippi law enforcement and juvenile officials worry it could adversely impact an already over-burdened Youth Court system.

“It’s going to create a tremendous pressure on our juvenile justice system with no increase in resource,” Harrison County Youth Court Judge Margaret Alfonso told the (Biloxi-Gulfport) Sun Herald. “So, it’s creating pressure on a system that’s already pressed.”

Legislators in Mississippi amended the law following state budget cuts that reduced bed space and maximum detention times, among other things, in juvenile facilities. But officials failed to allocate additional funds to the Youth Court system to deal with added expenses and growing number of offenders.

It costs states more to incarcerate offenders in juvenile than adult facilities due to health, counseling and other obligations, but juvenile inmates tend to have a lower recidivism rate than their counterparts in the adult system, according to the same Campaign for Youth Justice report.

Nationally, the United States has witnessed a five-year trend of states rethinking how juveniles are handled in the criminal justice system in large part due to research in adolescent brain development.

Crimes committed by minors aren’t always done with malice because they can’t fully distinguish right from wrong, Gina Vincent, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, told JJIE at a brain development conference in early May.

Only 11 states, including Georgia, still try offenders younger than 18 in adult courts for nonviolent offenses. Roughly 250,000 offenders under the age of 18 are prosecuted in adult courts annually, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice report.

States Reconsider Laws That Force Kids Into the Adult Justice System

A new study by the Campaign for Youth Justice reports that states across the country are reversing legislation that is pushing 250,000 kids a year into the adult justice system.

Following a spike in juvenile crime in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many states began lowering the age that children could be prosecuted as an adult.  According to the study, incarcerating youth in adult prisons, “puts them at higher risk of abuse, injury, and death while they are in the system, and makes it more likely that they will reoffend once they get out.”

Fifteen states have already completed the changes necessary to put fewer kids in adult prisons and nine more have legislation in the works.  Georgia (along with Colorado, Texas and Washington) has updated its mandatory minimum sentencing laws for juveniles.

However, Georgia is still holding on to a law that automatically transfers children aged 13 and older who commit one of the “seven deadly sins” to adult court.  Offenses include murder, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery,  voluntary manslaughter and armed robbery with a firearm.

Show that you care, real juvenile justice depends upon you

Since the beginning of the Georgia legislative session our reporter Chandra Thomas and our supporting JJIE.org staff of editors, interns and freelancers have been closely watching all legislation aimed at juvenile justice issues.

Chandra Thomas

Thomas had two excellent round-up stories yesterday and today targeting which bills would move forward and which would not on crossover day.

I opened my Atlanta Journal-Constitution today to see how its coverage of these juvenile justice bills compared with ours here at the JJIE.org. From what I could see there was nothing to compare. I saw nothing about Senate Bill 127, which is a rewrite of the juvenile code. An issue we covered intensely even before it was introduced into the house. Much to the chagrin of its supporters it will not move forward. We will, in the days to come, analyze why it did not progress.

Leonard Witt

HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, which, as Thomas wrote, would have allowed homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children.

The two are among more than a dozen bills, which only the JJIE.org has covered on a persistent basis. This is not a dig at the other media. Dropping circulation and falling advertising revenues mean that cuts have to be made. Since areas like juvenile justice do not translate into big audience returns, their coverage is often the first to go. Which means the public will learn less and less about a system that touches more that 50,000 kids a year and thousands of state employees whose jobs are related to the various aspects of juvenile justice from safety to victimization to incarceration to deprivation.

It’s the mission of the Center for Sustainable Journalism to find ways to sustain niche journalism areas like juvenile justice. Why? Because it is obvious if we don’t cover them no one else will.

However, in the long run we can’t do it alone. We will need support. We know several thousand people, just like you, care about these issues and visit the JJIE.org to keep informed. The first step is for you to please sign up for our newsletter. Or supply us with story tips. Or write for our opinion pages. Or provide your advice on what might sustain us in the long run.

Eventually, we, just like public broadcasting, will have to have a funding drive. For now, please just sign up at the newsletter or, if you are in a hurry like us, at Facebook. Please take one of these small steps to demonstrate that you care because we know you do.

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

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

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

That was almost four years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAI Bill is DOA

A bill that would make decisions uniform about incarcerating juvenile offenders will not become law this year.

“I’ll be honest, this bill is not going anywhere,” said Catherine Lottie, legal counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, referring to H.B. 471.

“The governor’s office hasn’t seen it and his people need time to look at it for a number of issues, including how much it will cost the state.”

The measure, sponsored by the committee’s chair, Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) deals with so-called detention assessment instruments  (DAIs), evaluations used by officials that help to determine if a juvenile should be incarcerated or not.

DAIs allow intake officials to assign point values to juveniles who have been arrested. If the intake officer gives the accused a high enough score, the juvenile is detained. If the score does not reach a certain threshold, the accused is either released or put under some supervision, such as a monitoring bracket.

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, which uses the form, describes the DAI as an objective instrument, “designed to enhance consistency and equity in the detention decision making process and to ensure that only those juveniles who represent a serious threat to public safety or failure to appear in court are held in secure pre-trial detention.”

Many juvenile justice officials in numerous jurisdictions across the state currently use DAIs, but their use is not required and officials are not obligated to adhere to them.

Lotti added that there was support for the legislation, but that there was also recognition that lawmakers are running out of time to address it. (Crossover day, when pending legislation must pass out of either the House or Senate to have a chance of becoming law) is Wednesday, March 16.

She also said the bill would receive a strong push next year.

“Willard,” she said, “wants to push this.

Senate Committee To Reschedule Code Rewrite Hearing

The clock is ticking for supporters of Georgia’s long-awaited juvenile code rewrite.  Crossover day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House of Representatives and House bills transition to the Senate — is now a little less than a week away. So far Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, has not yet made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) and if it does not do so before that critical deadline, it won’t be able to advance any further during this legislative session. That would be a major blow for supporters who have been involved in the rewrite process since 2004.

The committee was scheduled to discuss the measure at a hearing Wednesday. But the panel ran out of time after five hours, though members did manage to have extended discussions of several other bills. Representatives from the many stakeholder groups involved in the code rewrite, including JUST Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Department of Juvenile Justices (DJJ) sat through the marathon meeting, waiting to no avail for the bill to top the agenda. Most of them left at 5 p.m. when it was announced that the bill would not be discussed that day.

Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner, who has been leading the legislative effort on the measure, says it is not uncommon for committees to be jam-packed with discussions on several bills as the critical midpoint in the session approaches. She is now working with committee chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton) on establishing a time to reschedule the code hearing, ideally for some time later this week. Keep checking www.JJIE.org for updates.

The new code — the first in four decades — was introduced in 2009,  but it failed to make it to the floor for a vote by the end of the two-year legislative term. It was reintroduced on February 23 as SB 127, also known as “the Children’s Code.” If passed, the code rewrite would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the SJC and a specially appointed subcommittee reviewed the bill in detail, and a group of stakeholders met to agree on issues that needed refinement in the Act.