Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.

Constitution: Editorials: Bring order to our juvenile courts
Friday • February 18

Few other jurists hold the power to change lives --- for better or worse --- that juvenile court judges do. But in Georgia, juvenile justice is the neglected stepchild of the system. Adult courts get their share of state funds, but the state doesn't invest one cent in justice for children.

This year, the state Legislature has the opportunity to change that.

A bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, House Bill 182, would for the first time contribute state funds to the neglected and overburdened juvenile courts, whose facilities and provision of judges vary widely throughout the state because they are funded by their respective counties. The measure wouldn't do much about facilities (some hearings are conducted in trailers), but it would provide for full-time juvenile judges statewide. The House has already approved the bill, and the Senate shouldn't waste any time following suit.

As Georgia Chief Justice Robert Benham told lawmakers in his annual address, no other single budget item will reap as many long-term benefits for the state. After all, juvenile courts not only remove dangerous young people from society, but they are the last protectors of abused and neglected children, too, deciding crucial placement issues, making determinations about parental rights and providing for the safety of children who have no other advocate.

According to a study conducted by the state Supreme Court's Child Placement Project, almost half of the state's families have no access to a full-time juvenile court. Part-time judges, often young law clerks or busy lawyers with only a few hours per week to spare, serve the juvenile courts in 44 counties. Superior court judges cover the juvenile cases in 93 other counties, but they say they feel inadequately trained for the specialized caseload, which delves more into the complexities of behavioral change and family stability than the law.

Much of the recent focus on solving the heart-rending problem of child abuse has been on needed improvements in social services agencies. But more than 20,000 Georgia children are already in the custody of the juvenile courts. Improving the courts' ability to oversee these difficult cases is just as important.

H.B. 182 would add $4 million in state funds, a modest investment in the prevention of crime, school and family dysfunction. It's clear that the state would pay much more later to deal with troubled youth who were not turned around earlier in their lives.

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