Moderated by Tom Sabulis
By J. Tom Morgan
If we expect our children to respect the law, we need to create laws that hold them accountable while protecting their rights. For more than 40 years, prosecutors in Georgia have worked with a patchwork quilt of juvenile law that hurts the interests of our society and our children.
Now Georgia’s General Assembly has a solution before it that can solve that problem. The Juvenile Justice Reform bill (HB242), introduced last week by Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, represents years of work by numerous statewide organizations and volunteers, including parents, prosecutors, family attorneys, judges and scholars. More than 260 lawyers conducted more than 300 interviews to determine how to create a model law for Georgia. These preparations have been inclusive and transparent; many who want the best for our children had a hand in crafting the proposals. Their effort deserves support from all Georgians, especially those of us in the legal community.
Let me summarize some reasons to support it.
Children have rights, but often they or their parents don’t understand them. Changes in the bill would require that children have appropriate representation at every stage of proceedings. We must protect our children even as we prosecute them.
“Status” offenders would be handled differently. A “status” offense is an offense simply because someone under the age of 18 was involved. Some examples are breaking curfew, truancy or running away from home. Proposed changes already embraced by numerous states encourage using community resources to address the underlying cause of a child’s behavior. This saves money by avoiding unnecessary detention and leads to more appropriate responses to offenses. Equally important, it helps avoid the tragic path from juvenile offenses to adult crime.
Another tool strengthened by HB242 is mediation. Although some juvenile courts in Georgia have mediation programs, they are not used regularly for the resolution of delinquency cases. Detailed provisions of the reform bill provide a framework for expanding the use of mediation and ensure that the victim is given the right to participate.
The Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan research organization, recently examined challenges facing Georgia’s juvenile justice system and presented its findings to the Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Council. Among the findings: The majority of offenses committed by Georgia youth are non-violent, and the recidivism rate among youth who spend time in youth detention centers is increasing. HB242 addresses this reality with changes based on research and best practices that show states that take appropriate steps before incarceration see better results for children and communities.
Reforms proposed for Georgia provide more fairness to children in trouble and more assurances that judges can have adequate information and the flexibility to act with discretion. In the long run, Georgia will save money with an updated system that balances the pursuit of justice with the protection of individual rights and community interests.
J. Tom Morgan, former DeKalb County district attorney, is author of “Ignorance Is No Defense: A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law.”