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Leaders keeping 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 focus 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 Dawson and Hall 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. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, a former law enforcement officer, has seen the need for reform firsthand.

"Having worked in the criminal justice field for 18 years, I know firsthand how outdated and unsustainable the current system has become," he said. "We are already seeing positive results from the changes made last session to our adult system, and I believe we will see similar results as we implement reform in our juvenile justice system."

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.

Northeastern Judicial Circuit 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.

According to Darragh, 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 the 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.

DCN staff writer Michele Hester contributed to this story.