Published Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Either sentencing reform or the wholesale revision of the juvenile code would result in a major legislative accomplishment, but together, the two issues will yield the most significant change in years in how the state treats law breakers.
And these bills provide a relaxation of the law-and-order stance that has been a hallmark of Georgia jurisprudence.
Past legislatures have tackled one big judicial matter at a time. Whether it was then-Gov. Zell Miller's Two Strikes and You're Out or the tougher sex-offender laws sponsored by Republicans when they took control of the House, the General Assembly has digested its big crime bills one at a time. For example, establishing a statewide system for funding and providing taxpayer-funded lawyers for indigent clients held the spotlight to itself that year.
Frequently, passage of such complex legislation requires multiple hearings, special subcommittees and most of the 40-day legislative session. Then, it usually needs modification over the next session or two to fix unintended consequences or sections invalidated by the Supreme Court.
The heavy lifting is done by the members of the House and Senate judiciary committees, some of the busiest panels in either body. The House had such a staggering work load that it created a second committee, the Judicial Non-Civil Committee, to divide the chore with the House Judiciary Committee.
Next year's heavy agenda resulted from the confluence of two separate initiatives. One originated with the election of a new governor last year. The other started with a project of the State Bar of Georgia seven years ago.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who was once a prosecutor, is sponsoring an idea he got from his son who is a judge that shifts from a punishment orientation for addicts, drunks and the mentally ill to a treatment orientation. Instead of tossing them behind bars, it takes the less costly approach of intensive probation and required counseling
"We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars," he said. "While we'll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results."
Since the governor has the support of fellow Republicans who control the two legislative chambers, eventual passage is all but certain. That doesn't mean there won't be plenty of hearings, lobbying and debate.
The rewrite of the juvenile code has been in the works since 2004. Lawyers from the State Bar of Georgia and advocacy groups spent years borrowing ideas from other states to come up with a bill that revamps nearly every aspect of how children are treated in the courts.
"It is true that stakeholder input was not a big part of the development of the (revision). This was intentional," wrote Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at Emory University's Barton Child Law and Policy Center. "In order to create a true model code, based on best practice and social-science research, the initial effort was insulated from outside opinion and influence."
Then the House committee has been holding hearings to provide that stakeholder input. The committee has gotten countless amendments offered by still more lawyers, judges and advocacy groups. Since everyone involved is a lawyer, a lobbyist or both, there's been no shortage of opinions or disagreement.
Some of the most controversial proposals have been wrung out of the bill during multiple drafts, leaving a measure that its authors say merely clears up the law books that had become tangled by piecemeal amendments over the last four decades. But critics say the process has been hijacked by groups intent on liberalizing how unruly youths are dealt with.
"I intend to work diligently to see this bill never sees the light of day," wrote Judge Robert Rodatus for the website Juvenile Justice Information Exchange in September.
He and others have complained that the bill would require taxpayers to hire lawyers for children for even the most mundane procedural steps. Those lawyers would be required to ask the child's opinion and argue for it, even if it's clearly not in the best interest of the child or the child is too young to appreciate the circumstances.
The bill also redefines what constitutes a "family" in Georgia law.
"The proponents of the (revision) have a theoretical approach that fails to comprehend the reality of the dysfunction experienced by most of the children and families that come before us," he wrote. "We must step up and inject a dose of reality and common sense into this legislation."
Such is the atmosphere as these legislative committees grapple with two colossal bills, ensuring that even without last year's immigration-enforcement bill to keep things stirred up, it won't be boring on the justice front.
(Walter Jones is the bureau chief for the Morris News Service in Atlanta.)