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Keeping an eye on juvenile justice reform bill
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After tackling criminal justice last year in the legislature, state leaders now are turning their eye toward the juvenile system.

Local leaders in the juvenile justice community were optimistic but cautious in reaction to a bill introduced Friday in the House.

"This bill covers not only the criminal aspect of juvenile court, but the whole juvenile code," said Judge Cliff Jolliff, who serves on the Juvenile Court of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit covering Hall and Dawson counties.

The bill is based on recommendations from the 2011 report of the Governor’s Commission for Criminal Justice Reform.

Key components of the bill include giving more discretion to juvenile judges in sentencing, as opposed to the mandatory minimum sentences on the books, and alternatives to incarceration, such as drug and mental health rehabilitation programs.

Jolliff said the current juvenile code was enacted in the 1970s.

"The proposal is a result of combining a ‘model’ juvenile code from national experts, using best practices," Jolliff said. "There have been additions and subtractions from a Georgia political perspective. This involves criminal, abuse and neglect, runaways, truancy, ungovernable, children in need of services, mental health, emancipation, abortion ‘bypass’ of parental notification, traffic and other matters. That covers a lot of waterfront."

Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, has advocated for criminal justice reform, and it’s something Gov. Nathan Deal has played a key role in.

"I know the governor’s been looking at this and is concerned about the juvenile sentencing, and the judges have also been concerned," he said. "I support the governor and the commission and re-evaluation of sentencing for juveniles and using more modern prosecution to deal with it."

Juvenile attorney Nicki Vaughan of the Public Defender’s Office said the bill could make "a huge difference in the lives of kids throughout our state," but only if the funding can sufficiently cover implementing the new concepts.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh said victims need their voices heard in the process as well.

"Any ‘overhaul’ of the juvenile code should not be fully undertaken without meaningful input from Georgia’s prosecutors," he said.

Darragh said the system allows some juvenile offenders to get off too easily, getting many chances beyond the customary "second chance." Juvenile Court judges have limited options that leave little impact on many juvenile offenders, especially repeat offenders, he added.

Funding for the bill could be key to its passage, though. In last year’s legislative session, a similar reform bill stalled when prosecutors, county governments and lawmakers balked at the cost.

"Obviously finances are vitally important, but how we handle the judicial system, how our children are addressed, how their cases are addressed in courts are obviously very, very important," Hawkins said. "And we’ll have to have the financial portion in line, because we are a state that has a balanced budget."

Hawkins noted that Deal, a former juvenile court judge, has great insight into the issue.

"We all have really good intent — that’s the thing we have to look at in bills. How is that intent applied," Hawkins said. "But I have confidence. We had a task force and the experience of local judges, and I applaud them for looking at this issue."