A teenage girl who ran away from home to escape years of sexual abuse is picked up by police and locked up for weeks because she refuses to go home.
A boy with an I.Q. of 60 is arrested for breaking the law and is allowed to take a plea deal without ever having talked to a lawyer or having his mental competency to make that decision evaluated.
An abused child in Fulton County is provided with a lawyer to represent her in an action that would separate her from her parents, while a child facing a similar decision in a rural county is not.
These are just a few examples of problems that occur daily because Georgia’s juvenile code -- the body of state law relating to children in crisis -- is in serious need of reform.
The juvenile code addresses two types of children in crisis. The children who are abused or neglected are considered deprived children and are subject to state intervention for their safety. The children who have broken the law, run away, or failed to attend school are classified as delinquent or unruly and are subject to state intervention for the safety of themselves and others, and to promote their rehabilitation into productive, law-abiding citizens.
Thus, the juvenile code governs Georgia’s interactions with our most vulnerable citizens. But instead of providing maximum support and clarity, it is confusing and outdated.
For instance, certain important terms are confusing in the code. "Child" has three definitions and there is no definition of who is a "party" to a particular proceeding. This lack of clarity leads to inconsistent interpretations, creating different outcomes for children in similar situations.
Some of the provisions of the code also seem to conflict with federal law. For example, under federal law a runaway or truant child cannot be detained in a locked facility for more than 48 hours. However, Georgia’s juvenile code permits longer detentions. If not corrected this conflict could result in the loss of federal funding. Additionally, locking these children up further traumatizes them, making it more likely they will have future unruly or delinquent behavior. Longer detentions also waste state funds.
Other problems with the code stem from the fact that most of its provisions are nearly 40 years old. During the last four decades, both physical and social sciences have advanced, providing valuable insights about how we should be dealing with children in crisis.
For example, recent studies on the development of the brain consistently show that brains of youth as old as 17 are still not fully developed, especially in the area that controls judgment, evaluation of risk, and decision making. This fact should be reflected in how our juvenile code approaches children’s ability to waive certain rights, such as the right to counsel, as well as in how we evaluate a child’s culpability.
We also now know more about the types of services and rehabilitation programs that work best for children and their families, and about how long these programs take to be effective. This knowledge should also be incorporated into our juvenile code so that we can achieve better results from state intervention.
The Juvenile Law Committee of the state bar’s Young Lawyers Division has been working to develop a "model" juvenile code that incorporates national best practices and will address current problems such as the conflicts with federal law, lack of clarity, and the need for a more rehabilitative approach.
Additionally, a partnership known as "Just Georgia" has been formed to build a state-wide coalition and lay the groundwork for the anticipated revision of Georgia’s juvenile code. The lead partners in Just Georgia are the Barton Child Law and Policy clinic at Emory University, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Voices for Georgia’s Children.
By shifting our juvenile justice system to a more rehabilitative model which better serves the needs of Georgia’s children we can benefit our state by creating more productive members of society who contribute to our economy.
Traditionally, our state has ranked poorly in national studies of indicators related to child welfare. However, efforts currently underway present Georgia with a unique opportunity to become a national leader in legal protections for children. By becoming the first state to implement a model juvenile code, we can show renewed commitment to our most vulnerable citizens, and create a more just Georgia for our children.
Kirsten Widner is a Post Graduate Fellow in Law at the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic. She wrote this for The Georgia Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization.