Georgia’s laws governing juvenile courts are outdated, overly complicated, sometimes inconsistent and in dire need of a complete overhaul, a new report from a public interest law center suggests.
Whether the state legislature will take up such an ambitious project in the face of a deepening budget crisis remains unknown, but "Common Wisdom: Making the Case for a New Georgia Juvenile Code," argues for rewriting the law books in the 2009-10 legislative session.
The report was released by the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Just Georgia, a nonprofit legal advocacy group for children.
"I’m very hopeful there will be a revision of the code in existence," said Ari Mathe, an attorney with the Northeastern Circuit Public Defender’s office. Mathe co-chaired a state bar committee that worked on the project for two years, interviewing hundreds of juvenile court stakeholders. "Obviously the people of Georgia are ready for it, and I hope the legislators will hear that and understand a change needs to be made."
Sharon Hill, director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said periodic updates to the code, which was first adopted by the legislature in 1971, have yielded inconsistencies.
"In our current law, there’s silence where guidance is needed," Hill said. "There are many reasons to update the code."
The wide-ranging, 66-page report covers nearly every aspect of juvenile court, a multifaceted court that deals not just with criminal offenses and "status offenses" like truancy committed by children, but also neglect and deprivation issues. Juvenile court hearings are seldom covered in the news media because public access is limited.
Among the report’s suggestions:
Raising the age at which a person is considered an adult from 17 to 18 and adjudicating 17-year-olds in juvenile court, as 39 states already do.
Giving judges more flexibility in sentencing options and allowing them to impose longer sentences that will not be circumvented by state Department of Juvenile Justice policies.
Clarifying and providing legal definitions for certain terms.
Revising a procedural timetable that is in some instances unrealistic.
Giving judges more discretion in which cases should be transferred to superior court for defendants to be tried as adults.
Streamlining the code to allow greater coordination between different agencies and parties.
Creating a separate tier of juvenile law to specifically deal with children who need special services like mental health care.
Mathe said that just rewriting the law won’t be enough. Resources must be devoted to making it work, she said.
"If we make all these changes in the law but don’t address them in funding, then we have stopped short of our highest and best," Mathe said.
Hill knows that the legislature already has a lot to be concerned with without taking up the juvenile justice system. The nose-diving economy will no doubt be the top priority for lawmakers, she acknowledged.
"I think our nation and our state is focused on issues no one anticipated," Hill said. "We look for them to handle the priorities, and then look to address other important issues."