Georgia lawmakers are poised to introduce a bill that would revamp the state's juvenile code, one that has not been updated in about 40 years.
"I'm a supporter of everything that needs to be changed in (the code) and I'm hopeful that, with any amendments, it will still be a bill that can get by and be supported," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who is listed on the bill. "There's some changes to the juvenile code, especially procedurally, that need to happen."
The bill is being sponsored by state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a member of the non-civil judiciary committee, who said various amendments over the years have cluttered the juvenile code and caused confusion.
"There has been, over the years, a lot of sections amended and changed, and also there are
provisions that are addressing juvenile law that are outside of what we call our juvenile code," Willard said.
Judges would benefit from the rewrite, Willard said, because it would make it easier to determine if a section applies to a juvenile case.
"The rewrite is taking an entire section and compiling so it's more easily readable and can be followed, because it is difficult when you start getting into specific type cases ... whether or not a particular section can apply or not," Willard said.
It also would allow judges more freedom to decide cases, Collins said.
"As long as it's making it easier for the court system to operate ... the best way for government to do things is to help make things easier and to get out of the way a little bit," he said.
If passed, lawmakers would revise the code to substantially alter the workings of the Division of Family and Children Services to make it more liable for the care of transitioning children.
When a child under the state's care reaches age 18, he or she is no longer required to remain in the foster care system. It's up to the child's discretion whether to remain in the system or venture out on his or her own.
"Most youths are not really independent after age 18 in terms of being able to provide for themselves, and some additional assistance and supervision may be necessary to ensure that they make it from strict foster care into ... independent living," Hall County Juvenile Judge Mary Carden said.
Fellow Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Cliff Joliff agreed and said the program could save money in the long run.
"To think that we can turn them out at age 18 without some support is just an invitation to costing the taxpayers more money on the other end in the criminal justice system," he said.
Assistance to transitioning children could include housing, financial support, job training and further education to better assimilate them into society, Willard said.
Also, the rewrite would establish a requirement that all juveniles in certain cases, regardless of indigent status, be provided a public defender. Cases of delinquency and depravation are a main focus of the proposed revision.
"There is expected to be a prosecutor to handle delinquency cases, as well as the person, whether it be a delinquent or a depravation case, would have counsel," Willard said. "Those are things that are not actually addressed in our current law."
However, providing appointed attorneys to every juvenile in certain cases could prove costly for state and local governments in a time when many are strapped for funds.
"The biggest concern is that some of the changes will call for the expenditure of additional monies that may not be available," Carden said.
Currently, only indigent children are required to be provided attorneys, and a representative of the Court Appointed Special Advocates is appointed to all children in depravation cases.
The Council of Juvenile Court Judges was provided copies of the bill's draft and Carden, as well as Joliff, provided feedback on the draft. Through that feedback, Carden expressed her concerns regarding jurisdiction's abilities to fund such a program.
"You don't want a lot of change that will require that changes be made when you don't have the capability of complying," she added.
Still, Carden understands the need to alter the code to make it more understandable and provide better care for children under the state's responsibility.
Joliff said he also supports the bill as long as legislators spend the necessary time to implement the various changes and programs while focusing on the financial impact.
"It's a good idea, but unless our government is willing to really seriously look at it, it's just going to be another law on the books. And without sufficient resources, it will mean nothing," Joliff said.
The state has one of the largest prison systems in the nation and lawmakers believe reaching people at a young age can significantly reduce that population.
Taxpayers are responsible for paying more than $1 billion annually while the recidivism rate has remained stagnant at 30 percent over the past decade. Those costs are expected to increase by another $264 million by 2016, with an additional 60,000 state inmates.
Willard said finding alternative ways to punish delinquent juveniles could prevent them from re-entering the prison system.
"There are ways that we can handle these juveniles perhaps in a community area as opposed to ... pack them up and send them off 200 miles, remove them from their community, their schools, their home and thereby just breeding future criminals," Willard said.
He said taking a further look into the lives of delinquent children could allow the state to reverse their behavior to prevent future incidents.
"We really do not do an appropriate risk assessment, determining what is the root cause of the problems these children are facing," he said. "If you do a good risk assessment then you're better able to equip the court with the tools to treat that child and hopefully get them back as a productive person in society."
Lawmakers say they expect the bill to pass during the legislative session, but not without some compromise.
"Everything I've heard has been very favorable," Willard said. "There are some appropriation issues we're going to have to address. I think we've got universal support behind it, it's just a question of what the potential other costs (will be)."