WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty-year-old Edward Ward, a sophomore on the honor roll at DePaul University, tried to describe to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), the only senators left in the room by the time he spoke on Capitol Hill Wednesday, what it was like to grow up in his neighborhood on the west side of Chicago.
“When I was 18, I witnessed a complete stranger's killing mere feet from me in a neighborhood restaurant," Ward said before the Senate subcommittee. "I was stopped by the police a few years ago. I saw them train their guns on me until I could show them the item in my hand was only a cell phone.”
Things didn’t get much better at high school, Ward said. “My school environment was very tense. The halls were full of security officers whose sole purpose seemed to serve detention. I felt constantly on alert – afraid to make the smallest mistake. I felt I couldn't go to them for general security issues because first I would be interrogated.”
More than 400 people crammed into hearing rooms in two separate U.S. Senate office buildings to hear lawmakers, educators, federal and court officials, and Ward testify about how punitive disciplinary measures at schools were funneling children into the criminal justice system, often for minor offenses like truancy or dress code violations, and at much higher rates if they were minorities.
This was the first-ever Congressional hearing on the subject, according to Dignity in Schools, a coalition of parents, educators and students advocating for the end of zero-tolerance policies in schools. Ward, who also works as a community organizer, is a member of the coalition.
Although many of his classmates wanted to succeed academically, they were hobbled by financial struggles at home and the responsibility of caring for siblings, Ward said. A classmate was suspended for being late to school, he said, even though she was tardy because she couldn’t leave her little brother alone at home until her parents returned from work.
There were lots of instances where his classmates were suspended or expelled for minor offenses that should have merited “a stern warning or a reminder,” Ward said. When they were suspended, they often disappeared for days -- weeks if they were kicked out of school, he said.
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Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
“We have a discipline crisis in this country that must be ended,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group The Advancement Projectand another witness at the hearing.
“Police are arresting youth for things like talking back. That’s now ‘disorderly conduct.’ Writing on desks is now vandalism.”
At the same time, racial disproportionality in school discipline can be such that, within the same school district, a five-year-old African-American girl who set off a fire alarm was suspended for five days, while a white ninth-grader who committed the same offense was suspended for just one day, testified Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.
Held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, the hearing drew so much public interest that it was shifted to a 260-seat room, the largest available, in the Hart Senate building.
Other witnesses at the hearing included U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.); Melodee Hanes, the acting administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; Mike DeWine, the attorney general for Ohio; and Judge Steven Teske, chief judge at the Clayton County juvenile court in Georgia. (Judge Teske is a frequent op-ed contributor to the JJIE.)
By the time the hearing was to start, the first room was full. A mass of young people, many wearing Dignity in Schools t-shirts, was still lined up in the hallway outside, waiting to get in. Capitol Hill staffers soon escorted them three floors up in an adjacent building to a 150-seat “overflow room” equipped with a live video feed.
But that room soon ran out of seats too.
OJJDP’s Hanes told the senators that millions of children were suspended or expelled every year for minor infractions like truancy, classroom disruption or dress code violations. Fifteen percent were suspended 11 or more times, she said, and those were the kids who were more likely minorities and who were likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
“We have learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system, their chances of becoming an adult offender go up 50 percent,” Hanes said. “As soon as they enter the juvenile justice system, their chances of completing their education, of getting a job, their chances of life, diminish significantly.”
The costs to taxpayers are significant as well, Hanes pointed out: It cost $10,000 a year to educate a child, and $87,000 a year to lock a child up.
“Research has clearly indicated that children exposed to violence in the home or in school or in the community, those children suffer trauma. The evidence is conclusive that those children don’t do as well,” Hanes said.
Ward said his classmates' experience bore that out. “A lot of youth from where I come from, they face huge struggles, huge difficulties,” Ward said. “We have to take into account the situations students face outside school to understand their actions when they’re in school.”
Any discussions of solutions had to include young people themselves, several witnesses said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Dianis of the Advancement Project said. “Young people have to be part of this conversation.”
Solutions included developing greater consensus among experts about best practices, greater collaboration on research and data between federal agencies and better guidance for school districts and states on practices that maintain students’ rights. Other solutions proposed were greater public education on the necessity for appropriate responses to delinquent behavior, more training for police officers in crisis intervention and greater awareness on the part of the public and law enforcement on how to handle those from diverse social, medical and economic backgrounds.
“We’re basically using our criminal justice system as a substitute for a public health system and an education system,” Franken said during the hearing. “This is a bipartisan issue. There is no question about that.”
Senate hearing photos courtesy of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin. Photo by Kaukab Jhumra Smith.
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.
“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 JJIE.org 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 JJIE.org 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 JJIE.org 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.”
JJIE.org will be monitoring closely these final days in the session before crossover day. Keep checking here for updates.
Georgia’s long-awaited Juvenile Code rewrite— the first in four decades — is inching closer to completion.
Some key stakeholders involved in shaping the legislation are scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to hammer out more details in Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. Many of the issues slated for discussion were raised at a Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) hearing at the state capitol Monday.
“We’ve had a positive start to the session and this hearing is just a part of finishing up the vetting of this bill,” said Sharon Hill, executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit helping to lead the rewrite effort. “Today was a good day. We are getting closer to the completion of this bill.”
Barton Child Law and Policy Center Policy Director Kirsten Widner briefed the committee on the many changes that have been made to it since its prior life as SB 292. That piece of legislation 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. Supporters said they are optimistic the current bill will get passed swiftly.
“I am thrilled to hear the support of the committee; all parties are much closer together in terms of our agreement on the core issues,” said Widner. “I think we’re well positioned to get this bill passed. I appreciate everyone’s commitment to the process. We’ve all been at the table working together on this. I look forward to meeting with the stakeholders later this week.”
Widner, of the Barton Center, joined representatives from the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia and Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL) — all organizations that have participated in shaping the bill— in presenting information before the committee chaired by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton).
The fact that the current draft does not endow superior court judges with the power to review the details of a case and transfer it back to juvenile court was debated heavily in Monday’s hearing. GACDL, which represents public defenders, also raised another concern dealing with sex offenders.
“We support the bill as is, but we would like to see sex offenses removed from the list of charges that are mandatory transfers to superior court,” explained Sandra Michaels, a lobbyist for the organization. “Those types of cases are very fact specific; they are more like mental health crimes that merit treatment as opposed to punishment.”
DeKalb County defense attorney Gina Mangham said she hopes all changes related to SB 440 and SB 441 , how children get charged as adults and what sentences they receive, gets approved. “Clearly more work needs to be done on this, but this rewrite is a step in the right direction,” she said. “This rewrite does a better job of dealing with the underlying issues that delinquent children face. Most of the kids who get prosecuted as adults are children of color, so this disproportionately affects our community. As an advocate, you have to be concerned about that.”
Defense attorney Viveca Famber Powell agreed.
“I’m glad that they’re considering other options for delinquent children other than prison,” said Famber Powell, a former supervisor for Fulton County Court’s juvenile unit. “That’s not to say that they should just go free, but it’s great that we are finally looking at other options like supervision and rehabilitation as opposed to just punishment.”
Famber Powell, too, said she is optimistic that the “gargantuan task” of rewriting Georgia’s juvenile code may finally be nearing an end.
“This new approach will allow us to transform someone who is a drain on society to one who is a benefit to society,” she said. “We can transform people; children can change.”
Some of the many key changes in the drafts from SB 292 to SB 127 include:
- “Deprivation” cases, those involving children who have been taken under the court’s protection due to abuse or neglect, are referred to as “dependency” cases, in line with the terminology used in the 49 other states.
- The age at which a child could be held to have committed a designated felony is lowered from 14 to 13.
- “Smash and Grab” burglaries are added to the list of designated felonies as a result of HB 1104.
- First time minor weapons at school infractions are excluded from the definition of designated felony as a result of SB 299.
- There is more flexibility in the system of services that the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) is required to provide for all eligible children.
- The definition of emotional abuse was updated to include significant risk of harm in addition to actual harm.
- The definition of children in need of services (CHINS) was updated by:
o Adding cross references for truancy and runaway provisions, and
o Eliminating underage sex as grounds for alleging that a child is in need of services.
- The definition of dependent child has been clarified to require not only that the child has been abused and neglected, but is also in need of the protection of the court.
If passed, the code rewrite would comprehensively revise Title 15, Chapter 11 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to juvenile courts and the cases they hear. Throughout 2009 and 2010, the SJC and a specially appointed subcommittee reviewed the bill in detail, and a group of stakeholders met to agree on issues that needed refinement in the Act. Through this process, the measure was revised and reintroduced on February 23rd as SB 127, also known as “the Children’s Code.”
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
Parents are not always the best advocates for children charged with crimes. In fact, parents may be uninvolved, absent, or even hostile, experts told state senators as they discussed proposed changes to Georgia’s juvenile code.
Some of those experts were young people who’ve been through the juvenile justice system. They are identified by first names only:
- Giovan, 20, was only 11 months old when he entered foster care. By 12, he was also in the juvenile justice system, declared unruly for cursing at foster parents he says repeatedly told him he was worth nothing. His offenses escalated until eventually he served a year in detention. His foster parents were often the ones who reported him, he said. “I felt alienated and helpless as the court proceeded to hear my case,” he said.
- Kelly, 22, was removed from her alcoholic mother at age 12. She soon started acting out, and was put on probation. Four years later, after a rocky relationship with foster parents, she was placed in a youth home where her own alcoholism and drug abuse came to light.
- Aaron went into foster care at 5. “My mother, the only person I knew, was yanked from my grasp,” he said. At 13, he started to get into trouble.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee visited the sensitive topic of parent-child relationships on Thursday as they examined sections of the new code dealing with juvenile delinquency.
The proposed code, known as SB292, would specify that only the state and the accused child are parties in a delinquency case. Parents would have the right to be present in the courtroom and to be heard, but not to speak for their children or make legal decisions on their behalf.
If the child wants to testify, or confess, or go to court without an attorney, parents would have no legal standing to interfere. It’s the child who faces the consequences. But the new code would allow children charged with crimes to waive the right to legal representation only after meeting with a lawyer.
Current Georgia law is unclear on who the actual parties are, said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law & Policy Center at Emory University. “That’s one of the ambiguities we are hoping to clear up.”
Widner presented the proposals to the committee on behalf of JUSTGeorgia, a coalition of organizations behind the rewrite of the code, which is expected to be re-introduced in the 2011 legislative session.
Some senators expressed concern about the effects of excluding parents. Parents can “stand in their children’s shoes” to sign civil contracts, Sen. Jason Carter (D-Atlanta), pointed out. Why not in delinquency cases?
“What an 11-year-old wants is not always what an 11-year-old needs,” said Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome).
“Don’t you believe that if a child has a right to a lawyer and is going to waive that right, he ought to have an opportunity to talk that over with his parents?” asked Sen. John Crosby (R-Tifton). “In most cases parents love their children.”
“In general people love their children,” Widner agreed, “but a lot of parents we see in juvenile court don’t have the same skill level we see in the rest of society. We see families that have in general more challenges than the average family.”
And, she adds, like the day’s young witnesses, many children charged with delinquency are in the foster care system. Parents who are responsible, engaged and involved with their children will have “ample opportunity” to advise their children, Widner said.
“The truth oftentimes is that parents are not there to represent their child,” said Randee J. Waldman, an Emory law professor and director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory. “They’ll say, ‘Send my kid to jail. My kid needs to learn a lesson.”
Often, she said, parents or guardians themselves are bringing the charges against the child. “Parents sometimes just want their child to be fixed,” she said. “They want their child to be sent to detention to be fixed.”
The new code has standards to make sure a child is competent to make his own legal decisions (the topic for another hearing) and judges can appoint a guardian ad litem to make sure the child’s best interests are known.
From the judge’s perspective, “We make every effort to get the parents to court,” said Judge Peggy Walker of Douglas County, “but we discover a lot of abuse and neglect cases as the result of juvenile action.”
The committee took no action, and plans to hold at least one more hearing on delinquency issues.
Anyone passing by room 450 at Georgia’s capitol on Monday probably thought lawmakers were talking about facial parts. The Senate Judiciary Committee was actually discussing CHINS—the acronym for Children in Need of Services—an important concept in the rewrite of the state’s juvenile code.
In the proposed code, expected to be introduced when the legislature convenes in 2011, the term would replace language in the current code about “status offenders.” The change is more than semantic.
Status offenses are acts that would not be crimes for adults, such as truancy or running away from home. Children who commit such offenses in Georgia can be classified as “unruly” or “ungovernable,” and under the current code can be detained “for days, weeks or even months in secure detention facilities,” according to a report prepared for the Senate committee by the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law.
The change in language and approach is an attempt to address the issues and institutions that contribute to problem behavior without resorting to the legal system.
“Labels are not helpful,” Sharon Hill, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Georgia Appleseed, told the committee. “Labeling a child as a status offender, unruly, ungovernable, doesn’t get at what’s going on in that child’s life, that child’s family.”
Treating status offenders as children who need services could help keep many youths from “getting deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system and ultimately into the adult prison system,” said Hill, a former Fulton County juvenile court judge.
The new approach would require that, in most cases, a multidisciplinary conference— possibly including parents, school officials, social workers, mental health professionals or other specialists—convene to form a family services plan. If the plan fails, the case would revert to court oversight. The proposed new code also provides that CHINS should receive services in the least restrictive environment possible.
Each county would determine who would be part of the conference, Hill said.
A string of additional witnesses appeared before the committee. None expressed philosophical opposition to the CHINS approach but had concerns about the resources required to implement it.
“This is important work,” said Wayne Drummond, executive director of the Georgia County Welfare Association, but he said he believes the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) should not always have to be the lead agency in the multidisciplinary approach. Placing that responsibility on DFACS without adding resources could diminish the agency’s ability to investigate child abuse and neglect cases and ultimately compromise the safety of some children, he said.
Bobby Cagle of DFACS concurred. “We are in support of the philosophy behind this change in law,” he said. “But all of this requires a lot of staff time, and when you’re talking about staff, you’re talking about money.”
Other speakers averred that the change would actually save money in the long run by keeping kids out of the expensive detention system.
Nobody really knows how much it would cost to implement CHINS, or whether some of the costs could simply be shifted. According to one estimate based on figures from a similar program in Massachusetts, the state would have to hire extra social workers at a cost of about 3-million dollars. Some of the expense might be offset by savings if the state detains fewer children, at an average cost of about $200 a day per child.
“We’re already serving these children,” said Judge Peggy Walker, a juvenile judge in Douglas County. “We’re just changing the name of what we call it, and changing how we do it.”
One speaker’s interest in the change is personal, not professional. “I want to tell you why I would support this,” said a DeKalb County father, who asked that his name not be used. He went on to describe the difficulty he has had with his son, who’s been in trouble at school, abused alcohol and drugs, and eventually ran away from home. “We were reticent to go to court,” he said, “but we wanted some kind of assistance.” His son, now 17, is still living away from home. He thinks a multidisciplinary approach might work for his son. Otherwise, he said, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Most of the 14 Senate Judiciary Committee members heard the discussion, and they’re expected to hold several more hearings before the legislature convenes in January.
A version of the juvenile code was introduced in April, 2009, as Senate Bill 292. That bill failed to make it through the legislative process by the end of the two-year term. It must be reintroduced in 2011.
The process of rewriting the state’s juvenile code began six years ago with a request from 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. In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.
Gayle White is a freelance reporter who spent 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts
The Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss the juvenile code rewrite bill SB 292, Article 6 next Monday at 2 pm in room 450 at the Capitol. Article 6 is controversial because it deals with Children in Need of Services (CHIN’s). These kids are considered status offenders under Georgia law. Currently, they are treated the same as delinquent kids. Article 6 would provide status offenders with family oriented services geared toward fixing their problems. Some of the agencies expected to attend include the Truancy Intervention Project, the Office of Child Advocacy and the Department of Behavioral Health.
Attorney Julia Neighbors from Just Georgia wrote a passionate argument for Article 6:
“Current research and best practices now suggest that youth and families in crisis require a faster response than courts can offer and that juvenile justice systems are often ill-equipped to provide the services these youth and families need. ”
For more on SB 292:
SB 292 was introduced at the end of the 2009 legislative session as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act. The intent of this important legislation is to comprehensively modernize and streamline the current stature concerning the juvenile code found in O.C.G.A. Title 15. The current code was adopted in 1971 and has been revised several times since. It is considered so out of date that the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution in 2005 calling for its complete overhaul. SB 292 did not pass in the 2010 session, but was introduced purely to move the legislation forward in the next session.
The code needs to be modernized for several reasons. It is so confusing and disorganized that even the most experienced judges and lawyers have trouble using it. It must be updated to comply with federal law dealing with child welfare and the federal funds attached to those laws. The revision of the code reflects the best practices of other states and evidence based practices of child welfare. We know more about child development than we did when the code was developed in 1971. This understanding needs to be reflected in Georgia's laws.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on this piece of legislation on Monday, August 9th at 2 pm at the Capitol in room 450. They will be hearing testimony on Article 6 in the code to create a new approach for intervening with children who are currently considered "unruly." Children in Need of Services (CHINS) include children who have committed an act that would not be against the law but for the fact that they are children, such as skipping school, running away from home, drinking alcohol, and violating curfew. This would also include children who are "habitually disobedient" to their parents and place themselves or others in unsafe circumstances through their behavior. The courts now intervene with these children as if they were delinquency cases rather than in the more holistic, service-oriented approach of the rewrite.
This approach has shown to be more effective, more cost efficient and more protective of public safety.
Normer Adams is Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children and a writer, speaker and consultant on family and social issues such as advocacy, lobbying, and child welfare policy. Learn more at www.gahsc.org/