The Forsyth County attorney’s office will be prosecuting cases for a new category of children identified in the juvenile justice system starting Jan. 1.
The state’s juvenile justice reform act created a category for status offenders, called children in need of services, or CHINS, which include runaways, truants and the ungovernable.
Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson explained that status offenses are those considered criminal only because of the child’s status — their age.
The law’s intent was to reduce the number of children going to juvenile detention centers for status offense, which was both expensive and ineffective. Jackson noted, however, that Forsyth County was already able to keep status offenders out of such facilities through community programs.
Children in need of services will receive more child welfare services in an effort to correct their behavior, while still going through the court system.
“The state put in place that these cases are going to be CHINS cases, that they have to be prosecuted, and they did not set forth who has to prosecute them or how that is supposed to take place or be funded,” Jackson said. “This is an unfunded mandate.”
Up until about a week ago, Jackson said the court system had believed the solicitor’s office could handle prosecution of the new category.
However, more recent legal analysis determined that these cases are civil, and so don’t fall under the solicitor’s jurisdiction, Jackson said.
Similarly, he said the district attorney’s office will still handle the delinquent juvenile cases, but didn’t have authority to prosecute cases involving children in need of services.
He then reached out to the county attorney’s office, which agreed to take on the new cases if the county commission approved such an agreement.
The commission did that in a 5-0 vote Thursday, but with the request to review the number of cases and the costs within a few months.
The agreement sets the rates for the law firm of Jarrard & Davis at the same as those charged to the county for services — $175 per hour for attorney fees and $75 per hour for paralegal work.
The number of cases and time it will take to prosecute each one won’t be known until some actual data can be gathered next year, Jackson said.
He estimated an average of about 226 cases have been handled each year that would fall into the new category.
Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills said the unknowns are the “scary part” of putting the agreement in place.
She suggested a trial period to review the costs of having the county attorney’s office charge an hourly rate to handle the cases.
“It could very well be that it would make much more sense for us to hire an attorney,” Mills said.
No time limit was put on the agreement, but the commission requested a report as soon as possible in the new year.