ATLANTA -- Getting enough lawyers to prosecute and defend juveniles under sweeping reforms passed into law last year will require giving local governments flexibility, witnesses told a House subcommittee Thursday.
The wide-ranging reform law sponsored by Gov. Nathan Deal and recommended by a panel of judges, prosecutors and child advocates took effect 37 days ago. It seeks to improve the rate of juvenile repeat offenses by transferring the responsibility for punishment and rehabilitation from the state to counties.
It also aims to improve protection of children's rights by increasing the situations in which lawyers are required to represent them. Experts predict the number of lawyers needed will rise.
Full staffing for prosecutors and public defenders would require $15 million for 96 attorneys, money not in Deal's spending recommendations for the next fiscal year. Most observers don't expect full funding any time soon.
"Children deserve efficient courts just like adults do," said Sharon Hill, a former juvenile judge who now heads the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. "... The bottom line is fairness and justice for all parties."
Her organization was one of the driving forces behind the original proposal for rewriting the state's juvenile laws.
Hill told the Atwood Subcommittee her group supports House Bill 674 which determines the state funding for each judicial circuit based on its number of superior-court judges, allowing it to be phased in as more money becomes available. The groups representing prosecuting attorneys and public defenders agree.
The Association County Commissioners of Georgia back the bill as well, partly because it allows the local governments to participate in the newly increased staffing levels only if there is adequate state funding.
"This is a way the state can assist in implementing this law. This is needed statewide, particularly in the rural areas," said the association's lobbyist, Debra Nesbit.
Chairman Alex Atwood, R-Brunswick, said the subcommittee would likely vote on the measure within days.