Chief Justice Focuses on Juvenile Justice Reform in State of Judiciary Address

Speaking to a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly, Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein delivered her fourth State of the Judiciary address on February 7, 2013.  “Your annual invitation to the Chief Justice to give a candid review of our goals, accomplishments, and challenges ahead is a reflection of the honor and support you have extended to the judicial branch of government,” she began her final State of Judiciary address.

altChief Justice Hunstein noted that the work of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform is bearing fruit.  The passage of HB 1176 has resulted in a decrease in inmates in both county jails and state prisons, putting the state on track to save $264 million in five years; transitional centers for released inmates; and, thanks to an appropriation from the General Assembly, the creation of 12 new drug and mental health courts.

In its second year, the Special Council has studied how the state handles youth offenders.  Nearly 2,000 children are in state-run facilities including youth prisons, youth jails, or residential programs.  Forty percent are considered low risk and 25% are there for having committed a misdemeanor or status offense, which would not be a crime if committed by an adult. 

Chief Justice Hunstein noted that the state pays $91,000 a year to house a child in youth prison.  The research shows that nearly 65% of juvenile offenders will commit another offense within three years of release.  However, state budget cuts — particularly in the area of mental health — have left juvenile court judges with few alternatives but youth jail or prison for many of the children who come before them.

The final report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform contains a number of concrete recommendations to divert juveniles from youth prison beds. “The key to the success of our juvenile courts in handling troubled youths who have not yet committed serious crimes,” the Chief Justice said, “is the availability of programs that can intervene before it’s too late.”

altShe went on to talk about a 13 year old boy who was dared by his friends to rewire a fire door, causing the alarm to go off and the police and fire trucks to arrive at school.  Thanks to the school principal’s intervention, the boy wasn’t arrested.  He went on to enlist in the US Navy and become a lawyer. Today, Judge Steven Teske (right) presides over the Juvenile Court of Clayton County and is a tireless advocate for juveniles in Georgia and throughout the nation.

Judge Teske has brought together school leaders, police, prosecutors, and social service providers to steer disruptive school children away from court and detention into cheaper, more effective alternative responses to their behavior.   Since 2004, the number of kids arrested in Clayton County has dropped 83 percent.
Despite the current economic challenges, Georgia’s judges are responding to problems and conflicts with innovative programs and implementing proven solutions.

• In Barrow and Jackson counties, judges have leveraged federal funds to create not just one, but four drug and mental health courts.

• The Commission on Interpreters has forged ahead with a pilot project to provide constitutionally mandated interpreting services to courts in outlying areas.

• The Georgia Commission on Family Violence — led by Judge Stephen Kelley, Superior Courts, Brunswick Judicial Circuit, and Judge Peggy Walker, Juvenile Court, Douglas Judicial Circuit — has developed a comprehensive plan to significantly reduce family violence in Georgia.

• Progress continues to be made to develop a statewide electronic filing system that is compatible with all courts.

Chief Justice Hunstein recognized the efforts of Justice P. Harris Hines as chair of the Supreme Court’s Committee on Justice for Children.   “This committee’s work,” she noted, “under Justice Hines’ leadership and the staff leadership of Michelle Barclay, has contributed to a reduction in the number of children in foster care who fall through the cracks and never get out of the system.”   The Chief Justice mentioned the work of the Committee’s Cold Case Project that seeks to find permanent homes for children in foster care.  “This past year alone, the Committee reviewed the files of 245 children as part of the Cold Case Project, and it is committed to finding all of them families they can call their own.”

Chief Justice Hunstein ended her remarks by recognizing the difficult decisions the state’s lawmakers face during the legislative session but, she concluded,  “I am supremely confident in your leadership and courage.”

The full text of Chief Justice Hunstein’s State of the Judiciary address can be accessed here.


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