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Juvenile-court reforms aim to help young offenders
For the record
barry wilkes
Barry Wilkes is the Liberty County clerk of superior court and administrator for the countys state, juvenile and magistrate courts.

Georgia’s first juvenile court was established in 1911 in Fulton County. In 1971, a new law established a juvenile court in every county. In most counties, the juvenile court was a subdivision of superior court, with superior-court judges doubling as juvenile-court judges.

Superior-court judges of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit discontinued serving the circuit’s six juvenile courts in 2000, opting to appoint three juvenile-court judges, each serving designated juvenile courts of counties in the circuit. Funding for the judgeships is appropriated through the state’s judicial budget.

Linnie L. Darden III began serving Oct. 1 that year as Liberty County’s first part-time juvenile-court judge. An attorney working with the law firm of Jones, Osteen and Jones and former public defender, Darden has a history of working with children in his ministry with the Church of Christ in Savannah and as chairman of the board of directors for Save Our Children, a local counseling program for children that tries to place children in programs to help them. In the early 1990s, he served on the board of directors for Greenbriar Children’s Center. Kenneth Pangburn is judge pro tempore.

I serve as clerk of the juvenile court as a means to save tax dollars by eliminating duplication of clerical and administrative services within the local court system.

Juvenile court has jurisdiction over cases involving children age 17 and younger. The court’s purpose is ultimately to decide issues in cases in which juveniles are accused of committing criminal offenses or acts of delinquency. However, the court’s philosophy is to protect, rather than punish, children, unless punishment is the only and best option. The court must always decide what is in the best interest of a child while considering the best interests of society.

Carol Hunstein, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, said in in her final State of the Judiciary Address to the state’s General Assembly in 2013, “Today, we as Georgians — and as a nation — stand at a crossroads in juvenile-justice history. … We have learned just as we did with adult criminal justice that cracking down on juvenile crime is not enough. We also must be smart about juvenile crime and take action to reduce it.”

She noted that, on average, 2,000 youths are detained in long-term youth-detention centers comparable to adult prisons, youth short-term detention centers or residential programs such as group homes. More than half committed nonviolent offenses, about 40 percent are considered low-risk, and fewer than 25 percent were adjudicated for a misdemeanor or status offense that, if they were adults, would not be a crime. The state, she said, spends $91,000 a year incarcerating a juvenile in youth prison, as compared to the average of $19,000 per year to incarcerate an adult, with the difference attributed to youths’ educational and other needs that must be met under state and federal laws.

“But consider the return we get on every dollar spent housing these juveniles: Of the 619 children in our youth prisons, nearly
65 percent will commit another offense within three years of getting out — and nearly every one of them will get out.” she said.

In 2013, the General Assembly enacted the Juvenile Justice Reform Act, providing a much-needed across-the-board overhaul of the state’s juvenile-justice system in an effort to “help improve the futures of young offenders, while generating significant savings for Georgia taxpayers,” according to Jim Shuler, communications director for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

Effective Jan. 1, 2014, only the most serious and violent young offenders are kept in custody of the department. Those with minor and misdemeanor offenses are diverted into specialized community-based programs that are structured to manage core problems (such as dysfunctional families, anger issues, underdeveloped basic life skills, and drug and alcohol abuse). The ultimate aim is to reduce incarceration costs and the probability for recidivism.

Georgia’s youth are no longer automatically incarcerated for “status offense” violations involving misbehavior of youth younger than 18, such as running away from home, school truancy or curfew violations. Youth who commit these types of offenses were formerly referred to as “unruly children” but are now categorized as “children in need of service.”  Now, the state’s juvenile code authorizes law enforcement, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Division of Family and Children Services to develop treatment and service plans for these juvenile offenders, rather than immediately sending them to detention centers.

Delinquency involves commission of one or more of classes of crimes that would be deemed a misdemeanor or felony if committed by an adult. Formerly, punishment of a youth for criminal offenses generally required detention or probation under the supervision of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Now, with new provisions of law, juvenile-court judges, case managers and attorneys endeavor collaboratively to incorporate the services of community-based organizations as a means for reducing recidivism and better addressing underlying issues and needs of affected children.

Changes in the law in 2014 have significantly impacted Liberty County’s juvenile-justice system, requiring more economic resources, forcing restructuring of inter- and intra-departmental relationships of all entities and stakeholders, and requiring more time and effort on each entity’s part to diagnose and determine the proper course for helping children. Darden has established a local citizens’ review panel to review case files prior to and after adjudication. The panel consists of citizen volunteers and representatives of law-enforcement agencies, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Family and Children Services and other agencies. Through the panel’s efforts, recommendations are formulated and reported to the court for addressing issues affecting juveniles and their families. The panel also monitors cases and reports to the judge the level of progress that juveniles — and their parents —make in compliance with a court-ordered plan intended to ensure the child’s rehabilitation and progress through education, counseling, treatment and other programs available for that purpose.
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