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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.

Lawmakers Advance Georgia Juvenile Code Despite Funding Concerns

The proposed overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice and child protection laws cleared another hurdle Wednesday, even as local governments continued to fret about the potential financial burden.

The bill, five years in the making, would update Georgia’s juvenile code for the first time in 40 years, modernizing procedures and treatments for handling abused, neglected and delinquent children. The state Senate Judiciary Committee recommended passage of a House version of the bill Wednesday afternoon on a unanimous vote.

In endorsing the House legislation, the senators agreed that the state’s financially troubled Georgia Public Defender Standards Council should continue to make sure indigent juveniles facing detention have a lawyer. An earlier Senate version of the bill would still have guaranteed attorneys for those youths but would not have made the council responsible.

County governments, which pay the bulk of the costs to operate juvenile courts, still worry that they’ll be stuck with the tab for more prosecutors and defense attorneys, said Debra Nesbit, lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“We’re not realizing any savings at the local level,” Nesbit told committee members.

Advocates for the bill disagree, noting that increased reliance on mediation and other improvements would reduce local court costs.

Wildly divergent cost projections for complying with the new juvenile code continue to surface as it works its way through the legislative machinery. The bill would require a prosecutor for every delinquency proceeding and consultation with a defense attorney before a child could waive his or her right to counsel.

Local district attorneys, for instance, say they’ll need another $15.9 million a year to handle the new caseload, while a study commissioned by child advocacy groups calculates the cost at $8.6 million. The public defender council says personnel alone will cost $3.5 million more, while the same study puts the price tag at around $400,000.

Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), the bill’s sponsor in the House, suggested those agencies may have embraced higher estimates “to make sure everything’s covered.”

The effective date of the reforms have been pushed back a year — to July 2013 — so state budget officials have time to nail down the anticipated costs. Willard said the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget may have better estimates by the time the bill hits the Senate floor, probably next week.

“I think everyone’s waiting for the governor’s nod of the head,” he said. “He’s doing his best to do that for us.”

The Senate committee OK’d five amendments Wednesday that Willard said would save $35 million or more.

The biggest change would permanently bar judges from sentencing youths to so-called short-term detentions of more than 30 days. That limit — reduced from 60 days in recent years as a cost-saving measure — was set to expire next year.

Longer detentions could cost the state between $23 million and $31 million, Willard said.

“That’s major money,” he said.

More importantly, he said, short-term detentions are the wrong approach for dealing with troubled youth “because you’re taking them away from their community, out of school [and] away from their families.”

The code revisions emphasize community-based treatment rather than detention for many cases, a model that Willard said will save Georgia money and put more troubled youths back on the right track.

“There are savings not only in dollars,” he said, “but savings in the lives of these children and their future.”

Photo by Jim Walls | JJIE.org

Stakeholders, Foster Kids Speak Out On Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite

Former foster children speak before Georgia House Judiciary Committee members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powell and Brownlee share similar views.

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

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

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

The provisions in HB 641 would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. The process of rewriting the code actually began in 2004 as a proposal by the late Judge Robin Nash, then president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges.  The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation. Five drafts were completed before a model code was ready for the public in 2008. In 2005, a state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. In 2006, the Brunswick-based Sapelo Foundation pulled together the JUSTGeorgia organizations, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

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