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Courts gear up for juvenile code overhaul

Staffing resources could present a challenge as law changes on Jan. 1

POSTED: December 29, 2013 12:16 a.m.

For years, juvenile stakeholders have asked for an overhaul in state code. In May, they got their wish.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 242 on May 2, an almost 250-page bill that rewrote and reorganized juvenile law.

Now county agencies face the challenge of achieving full compliance with the law, which goes into effect Wednesday.

“The new code requires that all children involved in Juvenile Court proceedings be represented by a lawyer,” said Nicki Vaughan, chief assistant public defender in charge of the Juvenile Courts of Hall and Dawson counties.

Vaughan also represents children charged in Superior Court.

Previously, she said, parents would only received representation for their kids if requested through an application for a court-appointed attorney, if one of their family members was a victim in the case, or if the child was already in the system — the departments of Juvenile Justice or Family and Children Services.

“Now many children and their parents waive their right to a lawyer. …Over the past several years, our office has represented between two-thirds to three-fourths of the population charged,” Vaughan said.

It’s possible staffing for Juvenile Court will be enough to cover the new clients, she said.

“During 2013, the number of delinquency and unruly cases in the Hall and Dawson County Juvenile Courts was lower than in the past couple of years,” Vaughan said. “We don’t know if this trend will continue or not. Thus, we do not know whether our current staffing for Juvenile Court will be sufficient to cover the increase in caseload or not.”

However, the office is taking precautions to be in compliance.

“We have notified the county administrations that there may be a need for increased staff to handle the delinquency cases; however, we are going to attempt to cover the increase with the staff we currently have until we know differently,” she said. “We are also working with the Juvenile Court judges and staff in discussing the various changes being made.”

Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Mecum told area lawmakers at December’s pre-legislative session that the change was essentially an “unfunded mandate,” and asked the state to provide money for any additional positions that may be needed.

He also asked that the law be modified to allow volunteers from the Hall County-Dawson County Court Appointed Special Advocate Program to represent children in cases of abuse and neglect.

“(CASA) doesn’t do the legal, but could,” he said. “I would like the law to reflect that if a county has a resource like this where we’re already doing these kinds of things with the courts, that that remain. We could use our current resources that are working and have worked for several years and function very well.”

“When we have something like this, we can just meld that right in to our existing concern. My concern is the cost. The unfunded mandate comes back to the cost of that attorney,” Mecum said.

A legislative aid noted that a bill has been submitted, House Bill 674, that would provide state-funded positions for both circuit public defenders office and district attorneys offices to handle additional juvenile cases.

District Attorney Lee Darragh said shortly after the bill was passed that his office was ready to comply, with two assistant district attorneys already assigned full time to juvenile cases.

“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,” he noted.

Another major change come Jan. 1 will be how certain offenses are transferred from Superior Court to Juvenile Court, Vaughan explained.

The changes affect four of the “seven deadly sin” charges that have original jurisdiction in Superior Court rather than Juvenile Court: voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery.

Previously, only the district attorney had the discretion to transfer such cases, Vaughan said.

“After Jan. 1, after indictment, after investigation and for extraordinary cause, the judge of Superior Court may transfer the case to Juvenile Court,” she said.

Vaughan said the code is a “more coherent and more useful body of law,” with the revised concepts in line with other criminal justice reforms that address the expense and negative impact of incarceration.

Officials have put the one-year price tag for incarcerating a juvenile at $60,000, and with little benefit; the rate of repeat offenders hovers around 60 percent for youth behind bars, statistics show.

Those reforms are especially important for juveniles, Vaughan said.

“In line with the recent research in brain development, dispositions (the Juvenile Court equivalent of sentencing) will be focused on treatment, rehabilitation and supervision in the community,” she said.

That initiative reflects ideas that have trickled down from the highest court, she said.

“Over the past five years, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a series of opinions that recognize — as have parents of teenagers have known for a long time — that the teenage brain is physiologically different from the adult brain,” she said. “Such difference plays a role not only in a child’s culpability, but also in his ability to outgrow such disability.”


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