Juvenile Justice Commissioner Albert Murray is asking state lawmakers for help in getting two bills passed during the upcoming legislative session that would mean fewer children behind bars in Georgia.
One measure would require that juveniles charged with serious crimes in adult court have their cases heard by a grand jury within 180 days. Mr. Murray said there have been cases of youths languishing in jails for as long as two years, waiting for Superior Court trials.
The other bill would tweak a section of the juvenile code to allow arrested youths to be bailed out of jail by adult relatives and stepparents. The current law only allows parents and guardians to apply for bail, which can be problematic for youths whose parents aren't in the picture or don't care.
Juvenile offenders should have the same rights to due process and a speedy trail as adults, Mr. Murray said, speaking at a breakfast function Thursday in the gymnasium of the Augusta Regional Youth Detention Center.
Along with Juvenile Justice officials, RYDC staffers and several juvenile court judges from the area, Augusta Democrats Sen. Ed Tarver, Rep. Quincy Murphy, Rep. Pete Warren and Rep. Earnestine Howard were in attendance.
Mr. Murphy said he'll support passage of both measures.
"It sounds reasonable to me," he said.
The Georgia General Assembly's 2006 session begins next month. Both bills were introduced this year, but time ran out before the close of the session.
Children's rights activist Rick McDevitt, the president of the Atlanta-based Georgia Alliance for Children, said he hopes the proposed change to the bail law will bring attention to the statute, which isn't being uniformly followed across the state.
Underage offenders arrested for petty crimes usually have to go before a judge or an intake officer before they can be released to a parent. It shouldn't be so arbitrary; there ought to be a bail schedule and a list of bondsmen provided, just as there are for adults, Mr. McDevitt said.
"The way it is now, if they just don't like a kid, they can lock them up," he said.
In 2001, Mr. McDevitt stood on the capitol steps and threatened to sue the state if juvenile courts didn't start following the bail law. But little was done in the ensuing years.
"Obviously, DJJ has an interest in this," Mr. McDevitt said.
Also in the works is a possible rewriting of juvenile code in reaction to a 12-year-old boy being sentenced to two years after strangling an 8-year-old girl to death in Carrollton. Another proposed bill would require juvenile court judges to be elected.
Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.