"Hey, hey don't pay no mind.
You're under 18; you won't be doing any time."
-- The Offspring
Some lawmakers in Atlanta, in a misguided plan to trim the state budget, have proposed a bill in the Georgia Senate that would prevent juvenile court judges from sending some young offenders to jail.
Senate Bill 134 is cloaked in all the usual language about such things as "community based alternative programs," and about providing adequate funding to the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
But Juvenile Court Judges Bill Sams and Doug Flanagan see through the smokescreen as easily as piercing a punk's alibi. This bill would take away the ability of juvenile judges to use detention as a deterrent for anything but the worst crimes.
The two judges stopped by the other day to talk about SB 134. It's clear the two care about helping turn juvenile offenders around, and about protecting taxpayers' dollars. SB 134 would do neither.
Sams told a story about the gold keys he gives to young offenders. He's been a juvenile court judge for just four months, and hit upon the idea early on. He had 1,000 gold skeleton keys made, and hands them out along with sentences.
"I give 'em the key and I tell them it's a symbol," Sams says. "I tell them, 'I've put you on probation; that's the key to freedom -- or the key to jail." The trinket is a tangible sign that juveniles hold within their hands the ability to straighten their lives out.
Often what's needed, even in non-violent cases, is a dose of tough love that comes from incarceration -- or just a threat of it. "We feel like we need all the options open for children," Flanagan says. "Judges ought to be able to look at all the options."
SB 134's main target is the state's juvenile "boot camp" or Short Term Program, designed to get juvenile offenders headed in the right direction.
Juvenile Justice officials question the effectiveness of that program, saying 39 percent of juveniles who go through STP are back in trouble within a year. But as Sams and Flanagan point out, that means 61 percent of those juveniles don't get in trouble again - which is supposed to be the point.
The very worst juvenile offenders already can be tried as adults, which takes them out of juvenile court. And the minor cases go to probation and programs such as anger management or drug treatment.
In between, however, are kids headed down the wrong path. They need more than just being sent to what often is a bad home with a probation schedule and a list of counseling sessions. They need structured time behind bars to set them straight, or at least the realistic threat of it.
SB 134 takes away that avenue unless the juvenile offender has gone through court multiple times already. Savvy young criminals will quickly figure out that they have a stay-out-of-jail free card for such offenses as burglary, auto theft, drug-dealing -- and calling in bomb threats to schools.
That's right. Under SB 134, juvenile court judges wouldn't be able to crack down on Richmond County schools' rash of bomb threats by sending offenders to juvenile detention. Who in their right minds thinks sending these punks back home to mama will prevent them from calling in another threat?
This is nuts. Tying judges' hands will only free juvenile offenders to wreak havoc as soon as those kids realize (and they will) they can get away with just about everything but murder before they can be locked up.
"If the public finds out that it is taken out of our hands to give them detention in those kinds of offenses, there will be an uproar," Sams says.
Let the uproar begin.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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