MAJOR JUVENILE JUSTICE REFORM

  
Since before I was born, Georgia’s juvenile code has been a complicated set of rules and statutes with little case law to assist in interpreting it. As of last week, it seems that a huge part of our juvenile court system has been appropriately addressed by the General Assembly.

House Bill 242, Georgia’s new juvenile justice reform bill that would also re-write the state’s juvenile code, passed the state Senate without a single opposing vote. (The House passed the bill unanimously as well).

Juvenile justice reforms contained in HB 242 are the result of recommendations of the Governor’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Their recommendations are intended to hold offenders accountable, increase public safety and reduce the cost of the juvenile justice system.

HB 242 would create a two-tiered system of designated felonies and establish community-based treatment programs to keep low-risk youth offenders out of detention centers. The bill would also modernize and clarify Georgia’s existing laws dealing with neglected and delinquent youth.

The juvenile justice system reforms in HB 242 would focus the state’s out-of-home facilities on higher-level offenders and implement reforms focused on reducing the likelihood that juveniles will re-offend. Governor Nathan Deal has included $5 million in his Fiscal 2014 budget (plus an additional $1 million in federal funding) to expand community-based programs for these lower-risk offenders.

The Senate version of the bill includes several related legislative proposals, such as House Bill 219, which would give courts the ability to vacate delinquency convictions for underage youth charged with sex crimes in the instance the juveniles were the victims of sexual exploitation or trafficking.

There were changes made to HB 242 in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will have to be agreed upon by the House before the bill is eligible for the governor’s signature. However, the changes are considered to be minor.

Today, the state spends $300 million per year on the Department of Juvenile Justice. However, more than half of juveniles who leave the juvenile justice system are convicted of a new offense within three years.

Bill sponsor Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said previously his bill is expected to save the state about $85 million over the next five years and eliminate the need for two additional juvenile residential facilities. The governor’s criminal justice system has reported it costs Georgia roughly $91,000 per bed per year to house a youth offender in a residential detention center.

The bill not only impacts juvenile justice in the state, but also includes statute alterations to, among other issues, state laws regarding adoption policies, deprivation cases and parental rights.

HB 242 is the result of several years’ work by advocates and legislators, including former Senator Bill Hamrick.

Gov. Deal is expected to sign the legislation into law. If signed, the reform measures would take effect beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

I could not be more pleased with the General Assembly and the Governor. I am proud and excited to be able to take part in the criminal justice reforms that have evolved over the past couple of years. I look forward to the implementation of a better form of juvenile justice in Georgia.