Revived Runaway Act, Good Behavior Bill Close Out 2011 Legislative Session

Governor Deal addresses the State Senate on the last day of the 2011 session.

When Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold) passed Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner in a crowded hallway in the state capitol Thursday evening, he couldn’t resist passing on kudos. “You’ve had a good day,” he said, leaning in with a smile and an outstretched hand. “You’ve had a good day too,” she responded, with a grin and firm shake.


That exchange, in many ways, summed up the reaction many state child advocates and members of the Georgia General Assembly have expressed about the official close of the 2011 legislative session. And it’s not so surprising.

The last full day wrapped up with House Bill 373, also known as the juvenile “Good Behavior bill” and a revived version of the "Runaway Youth Safety Act," both approved and headed to Gov. Nathan Deal’s office for signatures. Rep. Wendell Willard (R- Sandy Springs) introduced a House version of Georgia’s Juvenile Code Rewrite — a sweeping revision of the state’s 40-year-old juvenile law — this week. Representatives from child advocacy organizations Barton and Voices for Georgia’s Children, also confirmed this month that the Senate version, SB 127, had received commitments from Gov. Deal and Georgia House and Senate leadership “to ready the measure for a vote in 2012.” That news came on the heels of the state Senate’s unanimous vote in support of HB 200, the human trafficking bill that toughens the penalty for sex traffickers and seeks to improve outcomes for victims.

“The Georgia General Assembly made time for children's issues,” said Widner, who spent most of the day with her eyes fixed on the closed-circuit television screens perched near the Senate and House chamber doors respectively. “They took their time with the human trafficking, runaway and DJJ’s (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice) 'Good Behavior' bills and made some real progress this session.”

Rep. Weldon, still basking in the glow of his afternoon victory, agreed.

“The Georgia Runaway Youth Safety Act moves Georgia law forward and ensures that children who could not get services now have a lot more outlets in the state to obtain help,” he said of SB 94, which would allow runaway shelters to provide emergency housing and services to minors for 72 hours while parental notification is pending. “This authorizes good people to provide services for a forgotten group of children who need help.”

Rep. Weldon said after his version of the Runaway Act, also known as HB 185, failed to make the Crossover Day deadline, its “language” was added into Senator Bill Heath's (R-Bremen) SB 94 gun bill, allowing it to pass in time for the last day.

“He agreed to let us to take out his gun bill language and replace it with ours,” Rep. Weldon explained, referring to the Runaway Act. “So essentially, the bill died in the House but was revived by a sub-committee in the Senate.”

Voices Advocacy Director Polly McKinney expressed mixed emotions about the 2011 session.

“Overall better than usual,” she said, noting the challenges budget cuts posed for lawmakers and state agencies. “We didn’t get all that we wanted passed, but there was a fair amount of discourse with the governor and that’s very helpful. Any session where there’s a lot of fighting over what (funds or programs) has to be cut, you’re going to have a tough time.”

The state capitol bustled with activity on the last day of the 2011 session.

McKinney applauded the “Good Behavior Bill,” calling it “a more holistic approach to child well-being” and “reward-based as opposed to punitive.” She also described the fact that both the House and Senate introduced versions of the Code Rewrite this session as a “major accomplishment” that will allow stakeholders to “work on it together in 2012.”

Although the special session is slated to begin in August, Widner noted that discussions are already underway for plans to host joint hearings on the Code Rewrite -– including both the House and Senate judiciary committee members -– as early as June.

Sen. Emanuel Jones’ (D-Decatur) juvenile parole board bill, which proposed to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel appointed by the DJJ commissioner, did not advance this session. Still overall, he said, some strides were made in the area of juvenile justice in Georgia.

“The important thing about this session is that the governor took an interest in tackling issues regarding our prison population; youth offenders as well as adult offenders,” he said.

Sen. Jones and other child welfare advocates also touted the governor's new bi-partisan initiative aimed at overhauling the state's criminal justice system as another important legislative milestone this session. State legislative leaders, including Supreme Court Justice Carol Hunstein, House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb), Attorney General Sam Olens and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle (R-Gainesville) joined the governor in February in announcing plans to assemble a new special council that they will all take part in. The legislation introduced by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) calls for a council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee no later than Jan. 9, 2012.

“The governor’s commitment to look into SB 440 and SB 441, the laws dealing with mandatory minimums (sentences) for certain serious offenses, is really what this [council] is designed to do,” said Sen. Jones, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “I would have liked more progress on these issues, including on the juvenile code, but unfortunately sometimes you have to face the political headwinds.”

Sen. Jones’ fellow Black Caucus member Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Austell) said she too believes that juvenile justice issues “fared well” in 2011. Her only request was that the governor ensure that diverse representation is a priority on his bi-partisan council.

Lt. Governor Cagle introduces Gov. Deal on the Senate floor.

“People of color are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, so I just hope that people of color are included in the process,” she said. “But I am excited about this step and I am hopeful.”

Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) wasn’t nearly as optimistic about the session.

“These bills and initiatives are some of the more positive things to come out of the legislature in a long time, but those are just structural things,” he said, in between votes on the Senate floor. “As a state we need to do much more to protect children. We still have hungry children; undereducated children that lack health care. The solutions to those issues lie in making a real investment in children. That’s the only way to prevent those problems.”

He also expressed disappointment over measures that failed to pass.

“We did not raise the school attendance age, we cut funds for K-12 education and to be honest we’re looking at ‘tweaking’ the criminal justice system,” Sen. Fort said of the general assembly as a whole. “At the same time we gave a $26 million tax break to Delta (Airlines) and gave several million dollars to [aerospace and aircraft manufacturing company] Gulfstream. The fact of the matter is that we’ve had more discussion about Sunday liquor sales than investing in our children.”

Crossover Day Update

Crossover Day – the second longest work day on the Georgia General Assembly calendar – has wrapped up leaving some key juvenile justice and child-focused bills dead for the 2011 session.

SB 127, also known as the Juvenile Code Rewrite and HB 185, the Runaway Youth Safety Act, that would allow homeless shelters to provide emergency housing and services to runaway children, are among the measures that didn’t meet the crucial deadline. VIEW SOME OF THE KEY JUVENILE JUSTICE AND CHILD-FOCUSED LEGISLATION.

“It had not made it out of [the] Rules [Committee] in time and that’s very disappointing,” says HB 185 sponsor Tom Weldon (R – Ringgold). “It looked like it was going to progress.”

HB 265, which supports Governor Nathan Deal’s recent effort to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee, was overwhelmingly approved by the House, 169-1. Governor Deal has told that he hopes juvenile justice will be a part of that review due out next year.

SB 80, which would require any person, including a juvenile arrested for a felony offense, to submit a DNA sample for analysis in a Georgia Bureau of Investigation database, did make it in time. The grueling 11-hour workday included its passage in the Senate. If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the governor, the measure would help solidify convictions on felony charges and identify suspects in other crimes. Twenty-four states and the federal government have similar programs in place. Supporters, including sponsor Sen. Joshua McKoon (R-Columbus), tout it as an effective way to close cold cases and free people wrongly convicted of crimes.

A House vote on Sunday liquor sales, meantime, is stirring up debate about underage drinking. Religious conservatives on the Republican side joined some black Democrats in opposing SB 10 in a 32-22 vote. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) is among the vocal opponents of the measure now headed to the House.

“Young people drink on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, so this is going to increase underage drinking,” says Sen. Fort, a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member. “There are going to be more [car] crashes due to this.”

Sen. Fort says supporters should consider the many unintended consequences. “This will contribute to more violence against women and children; that’s why I voted against it,” he says.

Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) disagrees with his fellow Black Caucus member. “This bill is about local control; empowering people to make choices in their community,” he says. “If their local jurisdiction puts it on ballot they will have the opportunity to vote on it; if their jurisdiction doesn’t then they won’t. This is not about promoting underage drinking. Creating a choice is what we passed today.”

Rep. Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) says assertions that SB 10 will contribute to more minors drinking are “absurd.”  He too contends the measure is about choice.

“Right now there are those who choose to drive to a bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on Sundays and consume alcohol and can drink to their heart’s content; this is about giving the very same right to their counterpart who wants to drive pass that same bar, restaurant, hotel or sports establishment on a Sunday and instead buy some alcohol from a package store and consume it at home. ”

Sen. Fort

Cobb Alcohol Taskforce spokeswoman Alisa Bennett-Hart shares Sen. Fort’s concerns.

“The trends do support that young people drink more on weekends, so adding an extra day of access to it definitely will have an impact,” she says. “If adults did not provide alcohol to them, this would not be a problem.”

Bennett-Hart say the non-profit, which combats underage drinking in Cobb County primarily by targeting the actions of adults, is not a “prohibitionist group” opposed to all alcohol consumption.

“We believe it is the right and privilege of anyone over the age of 21,” she says. “We have a problem with adults who provide alcohol to underage children who do not have the right and privilege to consume alcohol.”

Rep. Mitchell says issues, such as the ones raised by Bennett-Hart are better addressed in other ways. “We have laws in place for that,” he says.

Sen. Jones echoes a similar sentiment. He says it is unfair to place so many concerns on one bill. “This doesn’t address underage drinking, alcoholism or kids being able to buy alcohol,” he says. “Those are issues that still impact and affect our community. We are the ones who have to protect our kids from that. We have to ensure that businesses are not selling alcohol to underage kids. Those laws are already on the books and should be enforced.”

Bennett-Hart predicts that “adding another day” of alcohol sales will be problematic for already overextended agencies charged with cracking down on underage drinking and sales. The Taskforce, she says, will be using next month’s “Alcohol Awareness Month” designation to educate Cobb County leaders and residents about the organization’s concerns.

Going up against the powerful alcohol lobby ultimately will be an uphill battle, Sen. Fort predicts.

“We already know what’s going to happen,” he says if and when the measure ever goes before voters. “These liquor folks are going to put a lot of money into a referendum. The opposition’s not going to have that kind of money to pump into TV commercials and ads like they will.”


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

Crossover Day Is Here: The Latest On Juvenile Justice, Child Focused Legislation

Today is Crossover Day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House and House bills transition to the Senate. Any House bills that have not passed their chamber of origin will not progress in 2011. Because this is the first year of the  two-year legislative cycle, any bills that fail to cross over may still be considered in 2012.

Here’s an update on some of the legislation pertaining to young people in Georgia and juvenile justice issues that has been following.

Senate Bills

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

House Bills

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

House Resolutions

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


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

Juvenile ‘Good Behavior’ Bill Clears Ga. House, Heads To Senate

The Georgia House of Representatives has approved a measure dubbed the “good behavior bill,” that pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. The 169 to 1 vote came just in time to meet this week’s critical legislative “crossover day” deadline.

"I am so pleased with the passage of House Bill 373 and grateful to B.J. Pak, Jay Neal, Wendell Willard, Stacey Abrams, Yasmin Neal and all of the representatives who voted in support of the bill,” said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell. “It is great that our leadership understood the opportunity this bill presents for DJJ, our youth and Georgia. I am looking forward to working with the Senate."

The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), cleared the House Rules Committee on Friday and was heard on the House floor Monday.

Rep. Pak

“I think it’s good; obviously it’s something that has been worked on for several years,” Rep. Pak said, shortly after the vote. “This provides an incentive for juveniles in detention centers to behave. It allows them to petition the court for a modified sentence if he or she completes the terms of their sentence and demonstrates that they are rehabilitated. As the law stands now, they can’t even be considered for early release even if they have met all expectations.”

Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Director Kirsten Widner said she was pleased with the House vote.

“I think it’s great that they recognize that they had a great bill in front of them,” she said.

The measure is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), Rep. Pak said.

“This provides these juveniles with more of a chance to get another shot,” he added. “It’s about time we do this.”

Howell has described the legislation as  “good” for Georgia and DJJ. “It provides an incentive for youth to behave appropriately and focus on their education and rehabilitation from the moment they enter the system rather than waiting until the end of their commitment,” she said.

Crossover day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House and House bills transition to the Senate — is Wednesday. Any bills that have not passed a committee hearing by then will have to be considered later in the two-year legislative cycle.

Howell has said the measure “promotes long-term public safety” and provides an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community.

“I spoke with a young lady at Macon YDC who is a designated felon,” she said. “She has attained her diploma, completed technical trade training and is a behavioral model at the facility. She has another year of her five-year sentence to serve. She is worried about what she will do as a 21 year old and mother when she gets out. This bill gives the courts an opportunity to weigh whether there is a greater risk to long-term public safety if we leave a young lady like this locked up.”

Although it would likely be touted as a victory for child advocates in the state, final passage of HB 373 could also signal the end for Senate Bill 105 which proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within DJJ. One key difference between the measures is that one gives more discretion to juvenile court judges while the other leaves the child’s fate in the hands of parole board members appointed by the DJJ commissioner.

“My bill does not modify the sentence,” noted SB 105 sponsor Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur). “Under my bill, the child would have to spend time in a detention center and one third of his or her remaining time on supervised release.”

Sen. Jones had recently told that if his bill was not heard he would “attach it” to the massive Juvenile Code rewrite. Sources affiliated with Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, have hinted that some exciting updates are expected soon on the status of the code rewrite but they won’t elaborate at this time. So far it has not made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). Failure to do so this session would be a major blow to supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004.

Sen. Jones now tells that he will support HB 373. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he said. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”

He said he also backs the idea that Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske proposed to last month; pass HB 373, assess the data collected on it for a predetermined time and then only revisit the parole board model if data reveals problems with the execution of the good behavior bill.

“The ultimate goal is not to have good kids trapped in a bad system,” Sen. Jones said. “Anything that addresses that; I’m all for it.” will be monitoring closely these final days in the session before crossover day. Keep checking here for updates.

Child Advocates React To AG Holder’s Juvenile Justice Reform Call

Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.

In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime?  Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior?   And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?   Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:

  • Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
  • How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
  • It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
  • We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
  • We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
  • We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
  • Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
  • Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
  • Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.

Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.

Sen. Jones

Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)

“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“

Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)


“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers.  I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students.  No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”

Judge Teske

Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge

“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice.  Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech.  He shared the same information.  My speech supported what he said.  It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices.  However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth.  Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”

Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director


“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”

Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney

“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder.  I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder.  At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly.  This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia.  These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases.  The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year.  If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it.  There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system.  The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”

Uphill Battle Likely For Juvenile Parole Board Legislation Sponsor

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Teske

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we know about SB 105:

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

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

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

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


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

School Discipline Study Finds Disparities

Picture this: Students lay out their school initials in bricks on the outfield of a rival team’s baseball field so the grass underneath dies, leaving a long-term imprint.  If the culprits are caught, their punishment could range from a wink and a reprimand to a criminal charge of vandalism. The difference depends on where in Georgia the prank occurs.

Some schools and districts punish much more frequently and more severely than others, according to “Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class,” a report released in June by the non-profit Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. Some districts, for example, impose out-of-school-suspension at a rate 10 to 20 times higher than others.

“Perhaps the overarching theme of Georgia’s student discipline law is the strong reliance on local control in the development of overall discipline policies,” says the report, subtitled, “An Assessment of Georgia’s Public School Disciplinary Policies, Practices and Outcomes.” The June release is Phase One of a project expected to be completed in late 2010 in association with JustGeorgia, a statewide juvenile justice coalition formed in 2006.

Data in the report compiled by the Georgia Department of Education shows that the total incidence of disciplinary actions seemed to decrease from  2003-2009, but some severe forms of punishment increased. Expulsions were up by 19 percent, for example, and assignments to alternative schools grew by a whopping 40 percent.

The report, which looks at discipline in grades K-12 in Georgia public schools, found that African-American students, special education students, and those receiving free or reduced lunches were disciplined at a greater rate than other students.

  • African-American students, who made up 37.7 percent of the student body in 2008-2009 received 58.9 percent of the disciplinary actions.
  • Special education students, who made up 11 percent of all students, received 18.2 percent of the out of school suspensions and 23.7 percent of expulsions.
  • And the 53 percent of students who were eligible for free or reduced lunches made up 73 percent of the out of school suspensions.

The findings reaffirm those in an earlier study by the Georgia Department of Education, says Rob Rhodes, Georgia Appleseed’s Director of Legal Affairs and the primary author of the June report.  As the organization prepares a Phase Two report due out late this year, “we’re going to look at this very rigorously,” Rhodes says. In discussions with stakeholders in the state’s public schools, Georgia Appleseed will examine whether discipline policies need to be changed to correct unfair disparities, or whether counseling or other support might be needed, he says.

Some of the impetus for the discipline study resulted from stringent policies adopted in the wake of widely reported incidents of school violence.  “This nation was shocked by the tragedy of student violence at Columbine High School in Colorado in the spring of 1999,” says the preface to the report. “One month later, six students at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia, suffered injury at the hands of a fifteen-year-old classmate. Understandably, school administrators around the country have searched for ways to assure that their students can come to school and learn in a safe environment.”

These events lead to “zero tolerance” policies in many school districts, requiring severe sanctions for some offenses, regardless of the circumstances.   “Some observers have argued that these more rigorous approaches to student discipline have overreached, resulting in unintended consequences,” the report says. “Incidents of severe punishment for minor or inadvertent violations of student codes of conduct have been reported from around the country and in Georgia. These include the ten-day suspension of an eleven-year-old in Cobb County, Georgia, for her possession of a Tweety Bird key chain and the arrest and suspension of a ten-year-old Newton County boy who brought a small cap gun to a ‘show-and-tell’ about the civil war.”

Discipline is necessary to make sure students, faculty and staff are safe in schools, Rhodes says, but schools are also mandated to educate students. When discipline results in extended suspension or expulsion, the opportunity to educate is lost.   “There’s a need for balance between potentially conflicting goals and objectives,” he says. “Some studies have shown that since the 1990s, the pendulum has swung toward ensuring a safe environment at the expense of excluding too many kids.”

Different school districts in Georgia seem to see the balance differently.

Georgia Appleseed examined in detail the policies of fifteen school systems across the state. The districts varied significantly in their approaches to zero tolerance, which Georgia Appleseed defined as mandatory out-of-school suspension for ten or more days, expulsion, referral to an alternative educational setting, or referral to juvenile court for violation of a provision of a code, “regardless of intent or extenuating circumstances.”

State law requires zero tolerance in certain cases, such as bringing a gun to school, but some districts have adopted the same policy for other behavior.  The state requires that students be expelled for physically injuring school faculty or staff members. However, there is no such requirement for punishing student-on-student acts. “Nevertheless,” says an appendix to the report, “most districts have zero tolerance policies for fighting, battery, and assault committed by one student against another or even, dangerous behavior committed against oneself.”

DeKalb County, whose policies are among the strictest of the 15 districts, imposes zero tolerance for a string of offenses including smoking, using an unauthorized computer ID or password, and vandalism of property valued at more than $100.    Some people believe zero tolerance has gotten out of hand.

One Georgia incident got so much attention, it spurred changes in state law during the last legislative session.

When Eli Mohone, 14, couldn’t find his backpack one morning, his mother handed him another bag. At school, Eli found a fishing knife inadvertently left in it.  Even though he turned in the knife at his Morgan County middle school, he was  handcuffed, expelled, convicted of a felony and sent to an alternative school.  Morgan County school board member Dave Belton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “our hands were tied because it was state law...It’s not only zero tolerance. It’s zero common sense.”

In response to the Morgan County case, Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) introduced a bill that allows school officials to consider intent and circumstances in imposing discipline.  The bill passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Governor Sonny Perdue, who called it “common sense legislation.”   “We hope schools will now go in and change their policies,” Jones says in a recent telephone interview.

Overly stringent discipline may have long-term implications for students.  Appleseed found that many of the school districts with the highest rates of out-of-school suspension had graduation rates below the state average.  Conversely, districts with the lowest rates of out-of-school suspensions generally had above-average graduation rates.   The Appleseed report draws no conclusion about the relationship between the figures, Rhodes says, but raises the matter as a potential topic for further investigation.

Effective, fair discipline requires common sense and mutual respect among teachers, administrators and students, says Dr. Jim Arnold, Superintendent of Pelham City Schools. Until June 30, Arnold was principal of Shaw High School in Columbus and President of the Georgia Association of Secondary School Principals.  “Our school administrators understand that a kid that works at Publix and forgets to take his box-cutter out of his pocket is not same as another who threatens somebody with a knife,” Arnold says.

Shaw uses Monday Evening School as an alternative to suspension.  At Monday Evening School, students must study definitions from the SAT word list.

Arnold says he has a rule for discipline: It can’t be personal.  “We don’t criminalize the person,” he says, “only the behavior.”

He also believes in not overreacting to what may be a practical joke or a prank.

It was on the baseball field at Shaw a couple of weeks ago, where he was principal, that students from rival Hardaway High School laid out the bricks in an HHS pattern.  Some administrators might have called it vandalism.  Arnold had a good chuckle.

“I thought that was pretty clever,” he says. “Of course I wish our grass wasn’t dead.”

There won’t be an investigation to apprehend and punish the culprits.

Shaw will just cut the grass, fertilize it and let it grow back.

Read more:  Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class


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