Among the pending legislation is House Bill 242, a comprehensive revision of the state’s four-decade-old juvenile justice code. Sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard and supported by Gov. Nathan Deal, Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein and the State Bar of Georgia, among others, this proposal is long overdue for action.
By implementing changes that emphasize mental health and substance abuse treatment, anger management programs, family counseling, education and employment programs and probation supervision over imprisonment for non-violent juvenile offenders, Georgia stands ready to reduce both the criminal recidivism rate and costs to the taxpayer.
As Chief Justice Hunstein told lawmakers in her recent State of the Judiciary address, “We know one thing for certain: Spending $91,000 a year to lock up a juvenile and getting 65 percent recidivism in return is not working.”
On Feb. 13, I had the opportunity to testify in favor of HB 242 in front of the House Judiciary Committee. I reported that the work on this legislation started nearly a decade ago, when the Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division set out to create a model juvenile code for our state, based in proven best practices and scientific research. The Georgia Bar Foundation funded the project for the YLD, and in 2005 the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for an overhaul of the current juvenile code.
The JUSTGeorgia statewide juvenile justice coalition was formed for the purpose of promoting changes to the juvenile code and the underlying social service systems to better serve Georgia’s children and promote safer communities. Two core needs were identified: to incorporate the latest findings in the child and adolescent brain development field and to cause policy changes that can prevent detention and sustain healthy behavior outside the juvenile justice system.
After a year of collecting substantive input from town hall meetings and hundreds of personal interviews around the state, the YLD released its proposed model code in 2008. The Juvenile Law Committee, the JUSTGeorgia partners and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia continued to gather stakeholder feedback before the legislation was introduced in 2009. The Senate Judiciary Committee held 10 hearings on the proposal, which resulted in further valuable public comment for future consideration.
The proposed juvenile code rewrite came very close to becoming law last year, passing the House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously but failing to reach the full Senate for a vote amid concerns over funding some of the bill’s provisions. Since that time, Gov. Nathan Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Council has shifted its focus to juvenile code reforms and helped bring the new proposal forward.
All who have had an interest to weigh in have done so or had ample opportunity to do so. No one got everything they wanted in the new proposed model code, which most likely means it is a fair and balanced bill.
HB 242 represents the best of all input from all stakeholders who use the juvenile code on a daily basis and who are, therefore, in the best position to know what the legislation should include. It has been vetted and re-vetted, iterated and reiterated and cussed and discussed.
Georgia needs a new juvenile code, and HB 242 is the best possible blend of all perspectives, one through which the state can continue to meet the objective of being tough on crime but also smart on crime. As the age-old saying goes, “it’s all over but the shoutin.’” We urge the General Assembly to act swiftly and decisively.
Robin Frazer Clark of Atlanta is president of the State Bar of Georgia.