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Local leaders happy with juvenile justice reform so far
Bill passed House last week
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Local leaders anticipate some changes to sweeping juvenile justice legislation that passed the House this week, but overall they’re happy with the progress being made.

The overall goal of the legislation, which is now in the hands of the Senate, is to reduce the number of repeat offenders and bring down costs within the juvenile justice system. The legislation, based on recommendations of a special panel convened by Gov. Nathan Deal, calls for emphasizing community-based programs over residential detention centers for nonviolent youth offenders, providing judges with greater discretion in sentencing and offering more mental health and drug counseling.

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, has been a strong advocate for judicial reform on both the adult and juvenile level.

“It’s our responsibility to make the changes to better the laws. It’s the feeling of the judicial system, along with the legal system, that this needs a look back and some changes,” Hawkins said. “The whole purpose at the end of the day is to rehabilitate people so they can be functional and a part of society, and the system we have now is not doing that.”

Judge Cliff Jolliff serves on the Juvenile Court of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit covering Hall and Dawson counties.

“I am pleased the bill is making its way through the legislative process,” said Jolliff, who noted that the current juvenile code was enacted in the 1970s.

Bill sponsor Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, noted Georgia spends more than $90,000 a year on each youth offender behind bars and said 65 percent who are released end up back in jail within three years.

The reform is estimated to save the state nearly $28 million between now and 2015 and allow the state to cease plans to build two additional secure residential detention facilities, Willard said. He noted the effort drew bipartisan support, involved input from various research and advocacy groups and was modeled on reforms passed in Texas and Ohio.

The overhaul has been a few years in the making. A bill with similar goals stalled during last year’s session after there were concerns about who would bear some of the costs in transitioning from a system relying heavily on secure residential detention facilities to one with a strong emphasis on community-based programs.

Willard said those concerns have been addressed and some of the money saved by the state will be reinvested in programs established by the legislation.

Local juvenile stakeholders emphasized that in addition to facing a Senate vote, the bill could undergo changes before it’s signed into law.

“There were 50-something amendments to HB 242 as it was passed. I anticipate that it will undergo additional changes in the Senate, so I don’t think we will know how it will change the juvenile justice practice until after it is passed by the Senate,” juvenile attorney Nicki Vaughan of the Public Defender’s Office said.

She noted the financial shift, but said modifications to the bill should ease some of that burden.

“I do not anticipate that it will strongly affect our office’s role in Juvenile Court with respect to manpower or workload. Many of the concerns initially voiced about the CHINS (Children In Need of Services) Section, such as multi-agency conferences on all children, have been removed from the bill as passed,” Vaughan said.

Jolliff noted one of the less-scrutinized but equally reaching aspects of the reform package.

“Most attention has been drawn to the juvenile justice aspects of the massive piece of legislation. Little attention has been paid to the significant changes in approach to cases where there are claims of abuse and neglect of children under age 18,” Jolliff said. “The bill requires the appointment of an attorney to represent every one of those children. That is a good idea, but currently we use volunteer guardians (CASA) to advocate for a child’s best interest. We would still do that. The child’s attorney will be fighting for what the child wants, to the extent the child can tell the attorney.”

Jolliff said there was potential for increased financial burden on the counties.

“The bill does not assign fiscal responsibility for that cost, so it will likely fall on the counties. The counties currently pay for attorneys to represent indigent parents in these cases. The bill will mandate every single child in this type of case (abuse and neglect) has an attorney, regardless of indigence. There are other changes which will require state agencies to retool,” Jolliff said.

But he expressed optimism that further examination in the Senate might address those concerns.

“The effective date is currently July 1. The Senate will have to examine the question of whether to delay the effective date for a reasonable time in order to allow all the players to prepare for the additional responsibilities,” Jolliff said. “I am confident the Senate can carefully consider all aspects of this sweeping legislation before it goes to the governor for his approval.”

Hawkins emphasized that the task of molding the 247-page bill was not taken lightly.

“I applaud the governor for doing this, because he really invited everyone to the table who had a stake in this: attorneys, judges, even lay persons. It’s been a thoroughly vetted piece of legislation,” Hawkins said. “And I don’t know that any law applies perfectly to every person and situation, but I think they have really tried to address that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.