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Deal praised for juvenile justice reform

Aim of changes is referral, rehab

POSTED: May 12, 2013 12:36 a.m.

Local legislators and juvenile stakeholders praised Gov. Nathan Deal’s signing of a juvenile reform bill.

The bill, signed by Deal on May 2, rewrites and reorganizes juvenile law, including allowing courts to defer cases to mediation, creating new approaches to unruly children and clarifying the laws for children who commit adult crimes.

Judge Cliff Jolliff, juvenile court judge for the judicial circuit of Hall and Dawson County, praised the changes as progressive, and in line with the “‘best practices’ which have evolved across the country over the past several years, after scientific study and rigorous research into what works for kids,” he said.

Deal, a former Hall County juvenile judge himself, said he saw a dismal success rate for juveniles, with half of offenders returning to prison, many as adult offenders.

Georgia’s juvenile code has not seen a major overhaul since the 1970s.

“Juvenile Court judges and staff will not send kids to detention for most offenses. Instead, the focus is to develop a rehabilitation and supervision plan in the community,” Jolliff said. “There is a legislative direction to cut down on detention of youth unless they are true public safety risks. There is an emphasis on providing comprehensive services to children in their local communities.

Code changes will also attempt to better distinguish children by the nature of their offenses.

“A whole new category has been established for ‘Children in Need of Services.’ These include truants, runaways and kids who continuously disobey the lawful commands of their parents. Detention will not be used for these kids, for the most part,” Jolliff said.

The move is noted by Chief Assistant Public Defender Nicki Vaughan, who handles juvenile defendants. She said the bill offers treatment options for minors charged with more serious offenses, including aggravated sex offenses.

“Most child advocates would point out that although progress has been made in the treatment of children as children, with all of the deficits in judgment that go along with adolescent brain development, or lack thereof, the code still requires children as young as 13 who commit offenses ... that are often just the result of simple teenage curiosity and experimentation to be charged as adults in Superior Court — facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years in prison,” Vaughan said.

“The bill does allow for the first time in many years, the Superior Court ... to transfer the case to Juvenile Court, which discretion has rested solely in the hands of the district attorney. ... In my practice representing these kids, this is a big step forward in that it allows a judge to hear evidence supporting treating a child as a child.”

Changes in code will also direct district attorney offices to play a greater role in juvenile justice.

District Attorney Lee Darragh said those reforms will impact prosecutors across the state, but not so much for Hall County.

“One of the most significant changes involves the state requiring greater involvement from DAs in the state in prosecuting in Juvenile Court,” Darragh said. “In our circuit of Hall and Dawson County, our office has provided prosecutors in Juvenile Court for decades. Not all prosecutor’s offices have been able to do so, so there could be significant impact in other areas of the state.”

Two assistant district attorneys are assigned full time to juvenile cases, Darragh said.

“The Reform Bill is a ‘win-win-win’ equation for juvenile justice in Georgia,” Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles said at the ceremony at a youth detention center in Dalton. “It’s a win to get help for youth who are neglected or abused. It’s a win for troubled teens who need community outreach, not detention. And it’s a win for Georgia taxpayers who are entitled to protection from felony youth offenders, but who shouldn’t have to shoulder high security system costs for low-risk juvenile offenses.”

“I am so fortunate to see this promising reform happening during my first year in office at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice,” added Niles, who assumed his role in November.

Yet changes to code are expected to burden some budgets, officials have said.

“Another major change is that any child who is the subject of an abuse or neglect case will have a court appointed lawyer at county expense. The lawyer will be ‘client directed’ to the extent the child can communicate what they want to the lawyer,” Jolliff said. “For instance, even though there might be proof the child was abused in the home, the child might want to remain home instead of going into foster care. We will still use CASA volunteers to advocate for what is in the child’s best interest, but the lawyer is a major change.”

But legislators expect savings overall by reducing incarceration — juvenile incarceration costs about $90,000 a year.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform on both the adult and juvenile levels.

“The purpose of justice, in the penalty phase, is not only for not a punishment, but hopefully to rehabilitate that person,” Hawkins said.

“If you’re not incarcerating someone — albeit going through processes of the system — you don’t have that $90,000 a year sitting in a prison somewhere,” he said. “The cost to the state is less, and there are savings for taxpayers. Most importantly, hopefully it’s actually a benefit to the individual — to that young adult.”

Hawkins said he’s confident in the abilities of local officials to adjust to changes as they are implemented.

“A lot of the proposals are actually things we were doing in Hall County, and have been successful,” he said, citing treatment services programs like drug court. “And we’ve got some of the best judges, attorneys and judicial staff in the state.”

Jolliff said the county boasts good resources, but added there will be challenges.

“It does call for more local resources and involvement,” he said. “Hall County is lucky to have such an expansive human services array — many nonprofits and programs along with governmental agencies. Still, the challenge will be what to do for children who need intensive mental health services and out of home placements.”

Like the other criminal justice reforms in the state, Hawkins said the process of legislating is, and should be, “ongoing.”

“This will be an active, ongoing piece of legislation, with periodic look backs at how this is being implemented to make sure that we’re on track,” he said.


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