ATLANTA — Juvenile courts would have to conduct an assessment of children's mental health needs before committing them into state custody as part of an overhaul of the juvenile justice code passed Wednesday by House lawmakers.
Republican Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said the legislation is the first rewrite of the juvenile code since 1970 and moves Georgia into conformity with federal standards. The bill passed by a unanimous vote of 172-0 and is headed to the state Senate.
If adopted by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, the legal changes would not take effect until July 2013.
Willard said the legislation makes clear that juvenile courts can serve not just children accused of breaking laws, but also those who are abused, chronically absent from school or show serious behavioral problems. It would also require that judges make a mandatory assessment of a child's needs before sending them into state custody, a procedure that is currently optional.
"There are children who are being physically and sexually abused. They don't talk about it. No one knows about it," Willard said in an interview. "But this is one of the things that's causing the child to do the things they're doing in terms of their conduct. ... Let's get to the root of the problem."
Lawmakers backing the plan said they ultimately hope to create local centers where troubled children could go after school for assistance, academic help and other services, instead of being sent to far-away juvenile prisons. Deal and other lawmakers have called for reducing the prison population as the state continues to feel the financial pinch caused by the recent recession.
"The extreme cost we have for locking up children in custody is very prohibitive and not really serving their needs," Willard said.
Cost remains an unknown issue in the overhaul of the juvenile justice system. Local governments short on cash have warned state officials the changes could increase their expenses. State officials will conduct a study to determine how much money is needed to change the system, Willard said.