GAINESVILLE —Decades-old laws and regulations concerning juvenile offenders or victims of abuse in Georgia are in serious need of revision, officials say.
With that in mind, JUSTGeorgia, a new, statewide coalition, is spearheading an effort to modernize institutions governing juvenile justice and will be holding a series of free public town hall meetings to introduce the organization, detail its initiatives and seek public input.
"Our main goal is to obtain better child protection, health and modern services," said Leslie Gresham, project manager of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
"I think one of the best ways to do that is to secure the revision of the juvenile code."
The two-hour meetings are being held across Georgia’s 10 judicial districts throughout
October and November. Each meeting will be facilitated by the Fanning Institute of the University of Georgia.
Gresham said the meetings allow members of the coalition and the community to get different perspectives from judges, lawyers, parents and educators about any aspect of the juvenile system.
Ari Mathé, assistant public defender for the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, said the coalition’s meetings are a great opportunity to get public feedback.
"These are the kind of meetings that will allow the public to have a voice in making Georgia’s law," she said.
JUSTGeorgia’s two main goals are to pass a new Georgia juvenile code and to make changes in system practices that cover issues including health, education, deprivation and children’s services that can help kids stay out of trouble.
The coalition is anchored by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Barton Child Law & Policy Clinic of Emory University and Voices for Georgia’s Children.
On Monday evening, about 30 people gathered at the Georgia Mountains Center to give their input on the juvenile code.
Participants were asked three questions and used a wireless, interactive response system provided by the Fanning Institute to simultaneously view each other’s answers on a large screen at the front of the room.
There was time for discussion on each of the questions.
Participants answered these three questions: What is working well and should not be changed in the juvenile system? What is not working well in the juvenile system? What recommendations do you have to change the system?
People said things that work well include the Court Appointed Special Advocates program; that judges are appointed, not elected ; youth charged with a delinquent offense do not end up in adult jail.
Many answers popped up on the screen when participants were asked what is not working well in the current system. Answers included: a confusing code that’s poorly organized; the state Division of Family and Children Services needs more resources and caseworkers; a lack of foster homes and the need for more resources in rural counties.
"This dialogue shouldn’t stop just because this meeting is over with," Mathé said. "This is not the end of what the public is going to be able to do to influence Georgia’s law."
Mathé said members of the community, whether they are connected to the legal system or not, need to contact their legislators and let them know what their concerns are before the next session starts.
Mathé said the Gainesville-Hall County area has a history of people who are very involved on the state level.
"Gainesville and Hall County have a lot to say," she said.