Study Re-Starts on Juvenile Justice Overhaul for Georgia

Gov. Nathan Deal.Photo from Colorlines

After more than five years of drafting, a comprehensive juvenile justice reform bill is expected to appear in the Georgia General Assembly in January, which would give children in the court system access to updated intervention and rehabilitation.

A juvenile justice subcommittee will be formed soon out of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to study adult and child justice codes.  The full committee held its first meeting July16, where it heard a background briefing from the Pew Center on the States about juvenile justice in other states. The subcommittee will build on at least five years of work that ended in House Bill 641, a bill that died in the legislature in March.

“We hope to find things to make improvements to the current 641,” said bill author state Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs).

When it died in March, the 246-page bill brought the state’s juvenile justice code up to date with best practices about how to treat juveniles in the court system, whether as defendants, abuse victims or both.  It also created a category of juveniles called “children in need of services,” who do things considered unruly, but not quite criminal, such as skipping school, running away from home, or breaking curfew. Those juveniles would be eligible for a state intervention, meant ultimately to channel them away from law breaking.

It’s not yet clear how much HB 641 will be reshaped, but the council may introduce a way to give state credits to cities and counties that operate programs that help keep kids out of state custody, such as after-school supervision or strict probation. “It’s a way to keep kids in the community,” Willard said.

It’s also a model followed in other states like Ohio and Texas, which the council will study in the coming months.

That may very well assuage bill critics like county governments and some of the state’s judicial circuits, which worried that the bill would give them more responsibilities but no extra money, a so-called unfunded mandate.

“That was our issue last session,” said Debra Nesbit, who lobbies for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.  “That’s kind of what we’re looking for is some state dollars to be invested at the local level,” she added. Nesbit said programs like Willard described are few or nonexistent in many parts of the state.

In the coming months, stakeholders in the bill will gather data on its projected cost. ACCG, the Pew Center on the States, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Georgia’s Legislative Budget Office are all working on getting cost data.

State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) said he expects a draft of a new juvenile justice code bill at the beginning of the next legislative session, in January 2012. Photo courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives.

The bill died last year when it became clear that the governor and the legislature “shared concerns we had that we didn’t know a final price. There were multiple cost estimates ranging from four million to $80 million plus,” according to a statement from Stephanie Mayfield, a spokesperson for Gov. Nathan Deal.

The bill sailed through the state House unanimously but stalled in the Senate Rules Committee in March 2012.

A report of data and recommendations is due to Gov. Deal by Dec. 31, according to Mayfield.

“We think there’s substantial savings” in the bill, Willard said, estimating that the state would save $20 million by eliminating short-term detention programs alone.  The bill capped detention at 30 days.

The Georgia PTA has been involved in shaping the bill for years. “The PTA’s hope is that 641 is basically reintroduced,” said Karen Hallacy, the Georgia PTA’s legislative chair. “This is another step in making sure children are handled as children as they go through the juvenile justice system.”

The bill has been modified and tweaked over and over during its life, Hallacy pointed out, changing whenever police, courts, judges, advocates or other stakeholders came up with valid points. It’s ended in a good bill, she said: “We’re supportive of the whole thing.”

Willard expects a draft bill no earlier than the beginning of the next legislative session in January 2012.

Georgia Legislature Passes Some Juvenile-Related Bills, Kills Others in Final Days of Session

Georgia legislators found the money this year to tighten security and respond quickly to emergencies at the state's juvenile detention centers. They also declared cellphones and other telecommunications devices in juvenile prisons to be contraband.

But they couldn't find the money to pass juvenile justice reform, because Gov. Nathan Deal and others said they weren't sure how much it would cost. So the five-year effort to overhaul Georgia's aging juvenile code will become a six-year campaign when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013.

At the 11th hour, though, one provision of the proposed code rewrite was tacked onto the contraband bill and passed Thursday by both chambers.

Rep. Wendell Willard's amendment establishes a permanent limit of 30 days' confinement in so-called "short-term programs," an outgrowth of ex-Gov. Zell Miller's "boot camps" created for young offenders in the 1990s. A sunset provision in current law would have raised that ceiling next year to 60 days.

To save money, Georgia since 2005 has reduced the limit on short-term stays from 90 days to 60 days and then to 30. In 2008, STP offenders occupied more than one in five beds in Georgia's youth prisons, but the number has fallen since then.

Also Thursday, the House and Senate agreed to create a study commission to recommend services to help with the recovery of victims of human trafficking, about half of whom are believed to be juveniles. Georgia offers some such services now. The commission is to review best practices elsewhere and return with recommendations by Dec. 31.

The resolution authored by Rep. Buzz Brockway (R-Lawrenceville) noted that an estimated 400 girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia and that half of them were first exploited between the ages of 12 and 14. The FBI says Atlanta is among the 14 U.S. cities with the highest incidence of child prostitution.

In another bill passed this year, the Legislature expanded the scope of so-called "mandatory reporters" -- currently police, teachers, medical personnel and child welfare workers -- who must report possible child abuse to authorities.

The new definition, inspired by the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, will include coaches at recreation centers and at public and private schools. The clergy, with a limited exception for information obtained in a confession, also must now report possible abuse.

The provision is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform package, which also removes the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex offenses when the victim is under 16.

Bills that did not pass this year's legislative session include:

House Bill 272 by Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), which would revoke the right to a rehearing for some juveniles facing incarceration. Currently, young defendants may demand that a case be reheard by a juvenile court judge if they had been sentenced by an associate judge.

House Bill 1078, by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), which would have helped child prostitutes to vacate past findings of delinquency if they could prove they were victims of human trafficking.

Senate Bill 31 by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur), which would allow parents and legal guardians to sit in on a consultation between their child and an attorney without the child having to waive attorney-client privilege.

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."

Commissioner Announces New Chairman to Head Georgia’s DJJ Board

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice logo. Clay Duda/JJIEGeorgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner confirmed the Board’s election of Avery Niles to head the state’s DJJ Board. Niles fills the Chairman post formerly held by long-time Board member Ed Risler, who stepped down earlier this week following the expiration of his term last summer.

Niles, a 23-year veteran of the Hall County Sheriff’s Department and current warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution, was appointed to the Board by Gov. Deal in July 2011. As Chairman, Niles will “help guide Board Members as they serve in their advisory capacity to DJJ, providing leadership and counsel to the Commissioner to help improve Georgia’s juvenile justice system,” according to a DJJ release.

“I am honored to serve in this capacity,” Niles said. “I want to thank the Board for their confidence and I will work diligently to maintain their trust.”

Representing the 9th Congressional district, Niles will hold the position for at least the next two years, at which time he will be eligible for re-election by the Board.

The Board is made up of 15 members representing each of the Congressional districts around the state. Appointments are made by the governor and confirmed by the State Senate.

“The Georgia Juvenile Justice mission is to protect and serve the citizens of Georgia by holding young offenders accountable for their actions so they can become contributing members of society,” DJJ Commissioner Buckner said, congratulating Niles on the appointment. “We look forward to making real changes in the lives of our young offenders with help from a smooth transition of Board leadership ahead.”

A resident of Clermont, Ga., Niles is a graduate of Leadership Hall County, the Georgia Police Academy and the FBI National Academy. He serves as a deacon at Antioch Baptist Church and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in mortuary science while attending the Georgia law enforcement Command College in Columbus, Ga.

During the routine Board meeting on Thursday, Buckner also confirmed Gov. Deal’s appointments of two new members to the Board: Willie Bolton, representing the 10th Congressional District, and Frank Rozier from the 1st Congressional District.

Bolton fills the seat of former Chairman Ed Risler.

“We admire the professionalism Chairman Risler brought to this task,” Buckner said at the meeting, expressing appreciation for Risler’s more than 10-years of service on the Board. “And we wish all the best for our new appointees who are about to face the many challenges that lie ahead for the Department of Juvenile Justice.”

The Board seat for the 1st Congressional District was vacant before Rozier’s appointment.

Photo credit: Clay Duda/JJIE

New Georgia Juvenile Code Advancing in State Legislature


ga state house squareA long-planned overhaul of Georgia's juvenile justice code got its first official nod of approval Wednesday, but backers still haven't figured out how to pay for it.

An estimated $15 million price tag is attached to the proposed Child Protection and Public Safety Act, sponsored by state Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), whose committee gave the bill a "do-pass" without dissent. Gov. Nathan Deal did not include that cost in the coming year's budget so, Hamrick said, supporters pushed the effective date of the bill back a year -- to July 2013 -- to buy the time to find funding for it.

"We have got to work on that with the House and the governor," Hamrick said. Some government agencies were objecting to taking on new programs that they couldn't pay for, he said, "so now it really seems to be how are we going to fund it."

The bill would modernize and reorganize state laws addressing delinquent and neglected children, giving the state new resources to deal with both groups and with a third -- unruly children, including so-called "status offenders" -- who often fall in between the two. Some status offenders -- whose only offense may be truancy, drinking alcohol or other behavior that is not criminal for an adult -- wind up in state juvenile detention facilities with violent, older offenders despite a federal prohibition.

Hamrick's bill would establish a new classification for juveniles -- Children in Need of Services, or CHINS -- to provide those unruly children with a wide range of services. CHINS kids and their parents would have access to tutoring, counseling, anger management and other mental health services.

The state Department of Human Services has agreed to coordinate those programs, which are estimated to cost $7 million a year, once the money is placed in the state budget.

A second significant cost -- funding for local district attorneys to prosecute offenses in juvenile courts -- could run up to $8 million, Hamrick said. But that's a conservative estimate, he said, and "it may be possibly a lot less than that."

The bill would also establish a mediation procedure for many conflicts now heard in juvenile courts, which could save the state money, he noted.

Hamrick is attempting to defuse money issues for a third agency, the Public Defenders Standards Council, by removing language requiring that it represent teenagers in juvenile courts across Georgia. One estimate said that duty would cost the agency $370,000 a year.

Juvenile defendants will still be entitled to a lawyer but, under the Senate bill, the cost would be borne by local jurisdictions. The House version of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), retains that mandate for the public defender council.

Hamrick's bill also drops a provision that would have required "sight and sound separation" in juvenile detention facilities between youth who have only been accused of a crime and those who have been adjudicated and committed to DJJ custody. That requirement would have required costly construction at many youth jails and prisons and, in the words of a senior DJJ official, was considered a "deal-breaker."

Wednesday's vote represented a landmark for many proponents of the bill. Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, choked up a little as she reflected on the committee's support.

"I've been working on this thing for five years," Widner said. "This is the first time it's gotten a vote."

Funding Cuts to Juvenile Justice System in Georgia could be Restored to Levels Closer to those of 2009

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed 2013 budget for juvenile justice, after three years of deep cuts, could bring spending a bit nearer to 2009 levels, state officials say.

Deal's spending priorities, though, reflect a harsh trend inside Georgia's youth prisons. They house a much different population -- older, more violent and much more difficult to manage -- than they did just a few years ago.

"We certainly find them more volatile and more physically demanding," said Jeff Minor, Georgia’s deputy juvenile justice commissioner.

The trend was underscored last year when disturbances at youth detention facilities in DeKalb and Dodge counties could only be quelled with the aid of state and local police. The violence culminated in November when a 19-year-old was beaten to death at the state's Augusta Youth Development Campus. A 17-year-old was charged with murder in the incident.

The Augusta incident led to the firings of the center's director and several staffers and helped lead to the appointment of a former GBI agent and parole board member as commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Georgia's highest-security facilities for juveniles now house violent and sex offenders almost exclusively. The number of so-called "designated felons" in the YDC population has more than doubled in a decade, climbing from 349 on an average day in 2000 to 718 last year. They're older, too, with youths 18 and older making up nearly 38 percent of the YDC population, up from just 7.3 percent in 2000.

The trend has had a ripple effect on other DJJ programs, as other designated felons who are awaiting placement are housed in less-secure detention facilities alongside juveniles accused of non-violent offenses. "Kids are tougher at every stop," Minor said.

Deal's 2013 proposal, unveiled last week, calls for a $15.4 million uptick in spending after the department's budget had been slashed by $57 million since 2009. Two line items would target the tougher, older population of youthful offenders:

  • $1 million to create two 12-member Security Management and Response Teams, or SMART). Members would be trained for emergency response but would also be available to shake down juveniles’ cells for weapons and contraband, review security policies and perform other duties.
  • $7.7 million to open a new 80-bed youth prison in south Fulton County, the first to be located in north Georgia. DJJ had retrofitted an old detention facility for adult probationers, but had to wait for the economy to start to turn around before asking for the money to operate it.

DJJ also hopes to invest in new community-based programs for less serious offenders, including an additional $576,000 for 60 slots in new Evening Reporting Centers, which would offer structured programs such as counseling, tutoring and anger management, and $2.7 million for 50 residential beds at wilderness camps.

Juvenile justice officials say they hope Deal's budget signals an end to forced cuts that have eliminated 862 jobs and more than 900 beds for juvenile offenders in recent years.

The governor's proposals "help us get our feet under us," Minor said. Over the last few years, "we feel like we've been knocked pretty hard."

Georgia legislators will begin considering Deal's proposals Wednesday afternoon, when new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner testifies before the joint House and Senate appropriations committees.

Photo: Well&

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 |


Leadership Changes Announced For Governor’s Office for Children and Families

Georgia’s First Lady is expanding her service role to children in the state.

Sandra Deal, wife of Gov. Nathan Deal, has agreed to lead the advisory board for the Governor's Office for Children and Families (GOCF).

“It’s important for us to concentrate on our children and our families for the sake of our state,” Mrs. Deal said during the news conference led by the governor, along with House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

It was also announced that Katie Joe Ballard has been tapped to take on the role of GOCF’s Executive Director.

“I’m excited; I have some big shoes to fill,” said Ballard after the event today in the North Wing of the state capitol. “I look forward to working with the First Lady on carrying on the mission of GOCF.”

Mrs. Deal said in the position, she intends to focus on a diverse array of issues affecting Georgia’s children, including education, childhood obesity and human trafficking.

“I’m like a mother bear fighting for her cubs,” quipped Mrs. Deal, citing her credentials as a mother, grandmother and teacher. “I want to do what I can to fight for the children in the state.”


Ballard previously served as Gov. Deal’s director of Constituent Services. In this capacity, she oversaw 15 employees of the staff who handle constituent correspondence and serve as a liaison between Georgians and state agencies.

She replaces Jennifer Bennecke who will officially resign on August 15. Bennecke, who is pregnant with her first child, will not return following maternity leave, according to an email circulated to GOCF’s advisory board last month. Bennecke’s departure comes not long after received a letter to GOCF from the Georgia Office of Audits and Accounts announcing plans to perform a “special examination” of GOCF’s “performance and expenditures, including Children’s Trust Fund revenues, that may be considered in connection with potential mergers with other organizations.”

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue created GOCF in 2008 by joining together the Children’s Trust Fund Commission and the Children and Youth Coordinating Council into one organization. Bennecke was the new organization’s first executive director.

JJIE also reported that Bennecke was also at the center of some controversy earlier this year when Gov. Deal attempted to fold another organization, the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, a 20-year old statewide public-private collaboration, and its budget of nearly $8 Million, into GOCF.

During the news conference, Gov. Deal also announced plans for a special legislative session to begin on August 15. He says the proposed controversial one-cent SPLOST sales tax hike and redistricting will be priorities during the special session.

Speaker Ralston said he looks forward to an expedient, yet “transparent, open and fair” redistricting session. “We want to get it done and get out of there,” he said. Gov. Deal came under fire this week from House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) who accused his administration of attempting to purge “the state of Georgia of white Democrats.”

Stacey Abrams

Rep. Abrams said the current plans to create 49 “majority-minority” House districts, represents an increase of seven over the existing configuration.

Speaker Ralston called Rep. Abram’s comments “factually wrong” and “harmful to Georgia.” Lt. Governor Cagle agreed. He asserted that the session will include input from both Georgia lawmakers and citizens.

“We have a responsibility to the citizens of the state to have their voices heard in this process,” he said. “Those voices will be heard.”

It’s Official: Governor Deal Signs Juvenile ‘Good Behavior Bill’ Into Law

Lorena Padron, 18, and Maria Calderon, 19, were all smiles this afternoon as they flanked Governor Nathan Deal in his office.

With a stroke of a pen, the governor signed HB 373 into law, giving both of them and thousands of others with a track record of good behavior and academic success in Georgia’s Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) and Youth Development Centers (YDCs)  a chance to substantially reduce their time in custody. Known as the “Good Behavior bill,” the measure passed in the 2011 legislative session that ended last month also gives juvenile court judges more discretion.

“I feel very good, I’m very happy,” said Padron, after the signing ceremony at the state capitol. “I feel like I can begin my life again, like I’ll be able to go home and help my family. Now everybody has hope; an opportunity to show that they can do better.”

Calderon agreed with her fellow Macon YDC peer.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said, of the bill formally endorsed by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ). “I would say that it gives us hope that we can show our judge that we deserve to go home. And I have a tough judge.”

Sponsored by state Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) and state Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), the bill allows juvenile court judges to modify the sentences of designated felons committed to DJJ facilities. Currently, there is no provision for judges to modify sentences based on a child’s behavior, academic achievement or rehabilitation status.

“This is not about managing budget constraints, this is about public safety and motivating kids to do better,” insisted DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell. “This gives them a chance to prove that they can change and turn their lives around.”

Rep. Pak called the measure a “step in the right direction” for prison system reform in Georgia.

Calderon and Padron pose at the state capitol.

“It gives juveniles an incentive to behave and get to take advantage of educational opportunities, which is the whole goal of the juvenile justice system,” said Pak. “I hope this results in a lot of juveniles turning their lives around.

He emphasized that the measure is not about being “soft” on crime.

“This doesn’t mean that everyone has the opportunity to get out; only those who are completely rehabilitated will be considered, which is better for everyone overall,” he said. “It is also very cost-effective because it costs $220 a day to house a juvenile compared to $40 a day for an adult inmate.”

Key provisions in the bill, which officially takes effect July 1, include:

  • It allows judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release.
  • A motion can only be filed after the child has served a year in custody and cannot be re-filed more than once a year.
  • Good behavior and academic achievement will weigh heavily in the child’s favor.
  • DJJ will make recommendations, but the juvenile court judge assigned to the case will have the final say.
  • The victim and prosecuting attorney will be notified within 14 days of the child’s scheduled hearing date.

“The victim will have the opportunity to participate in the hearing,” added Rep. Pak. “They will have the chance to have their voices heard too.”

Commissioner Howell said DJJ will play a key role in “guiding the process” of ensuring the bill’s implementation.

“One thing that’ll be important is making sure that the stakeholders understand what tools are being given to them,” said supporter Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), who during the last session introduced statewide prison reform legislation backed by the governor. “We’ll have to make sure that the juvenile court judges understand the flexibility being given to them.”

Gov. Deal signed the bill during a small afternoon ceremony attended by Padron, Calderon and representatives from DJJ and CJCJ, along with legislative sponsors and other supporters.

“This is HB 373, right,” the governor inquired to the crowd packed inside his office. 

“Yes it is,” Commissioner Howell responded, with a broad smile. A hush fell over the room as Gov. Deal, seated as his desk, scribbled his signature.

“This is a very good day for DJJ, that’s why everyone’s being so quiet,” quipped Commissioner Howell, eliciting laughter.

Afterwards Calderon and Padron posed for pictures on the capitol steps and gushed about their first ever visit to the state capitol.

Sen. McKoon said their presence was very important.

“It was a good feeling seeing those young women today,” he said. “It’s no longer abstract when you see the real people who are affected by this. It’s a good feeling to know that this provides incentives for them to have good behavior and to pursue academic achievement.”

Calderon admitted that she was nervous during the visit to the governor’s office.

“My hands was sweating,” she said, with a giggle.

By the end of the event, however, she said her nervousness faded into excitement.

“I’m going to stay positive and strive for success no matter what I do,” added Calderon. “I’m just going to pray everything goes well with this bill.”