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Bar Panel Backs Juvenile Courts Funding

Some Voice concerns about HB 674's $16 million price tag

, Daily Report

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Wendell Willard warned the bar that full support for the measure could cost the governor's good will.
Wendell Willard warned the bar that full support for the measure could cost the governor's good will.

The State Bar of Georgia took its first step Thursday toward throwing its support behind legislation that would provide state funding for prosecutors and public defenders in juvenile courts.

None of the bar's Advisory Committee on Legislation members voted against supporting House Bill 674, but several members, including state lawmakers, raised concerns about the bill's $16 million price tag. One member, former state Sen. B. Seth Harp Jr., R-Columbus abstained.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, cautioned the panel against recommending full bar support of the measure, saying it may cost the bar the governor's good will.

"It would be helpful for there to be additional funding [for juvenile court positions]," Willard said. "But I'm concerned if we come out as the state bar in support of this, it won't be taken well by the governor."

Willard, who shepherded an overhaul of state laws dealing with neglected and delinquent youth through the General Assembly last session after a decade of work by the bar, said there was much bargaining with the governor last session in order for the code changes to receive his blessing. For example, supporters had to back down on a requirement that juveniles be represented in all delinquency proceedings because paying for the necessary defenders would have been too costly for the state. Instead, the new laws require representation only when the juvenile enters a plea.

House Bill 674 was filed at the end of the last session and is sponsored by Rep. Andrew Welch III, R-McDonough, a partner at Smith, Welch, Webb & White. Welch's father, A.J. "Buddy" Welch Jr., has been chief judge of the Henry County Juvenile Court since 1975.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia pushed for HB 674 shortly after the passage in March of the Juvenile Code overhaul, which also contained several criminal justice reform measures aimed at diverting youth offenders from detention centers by placing them in community-based treatment programs. Local governments worried that the bill would drain their financial resources. To alleviate their concerns and eliminate their opposition, the governor promised to reinvest savings into the courts and treatment programs. This summer, Deal, a former juvenile court judge, created a $5 million grant to provide start-up money for pilot treatment programs for juvenile courts in more than a dozen circuits.

But ACCG lobbyist Debra Nesbit said rural circuits covering multiple counties were not eligible for the grant and need state funding to help offset costs.

"It would make a huge difference for them to have prosecutors and public defenders assist with cases," she said. "We do realize this has a hefty price tag and that's why we think the funding may have to be phased in."

Nesbit also said she has spoken with the governor's office, which suggested language that would make state funding "subject to the availability of funding and at the option of the [state] Department of Human Services."

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