Forsyth County Juvenile Court and the local finance committee used a Wednesday budget meeting to grapple with how to budget for new statewide requirements.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed a juvenile justice reform bill into law on May 2 that rewrites and reorganizes the law.
The 250-page bill is a “complete overhaul of the juvenile code,” said Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson.
Those new requirements take effect with the start of 2014, but the impact to the county’s budget hasn’t been determined.
The biggest budgetary concern the group discussed with the changes is the requirement to appoint an attorney for certain types of cases.
Every child in need of services, or CHINS, and dependent child will be appointed an attorney, he said.
CHINS are defined in the code as those who have committed a delinquent act who require supervision but are “not in need of treatment or rehabilitation,” or those who are “habitually disobedient,” among other descriptions.
A dependent child is one that has been abused or neglected, placed for care illegally or without a parent or guardian, according to the code.
Juvenile Court clerk and administrator Rebecca Rusk estimated about 382 additional cases would fall under those requirements with an average attorney cost of $1,200, totaling about $458,000 in expenses.
Previously, such appointments were left to the judge’s discretion, Rusk said.
“The court really didn’t see a need in appointing an attorney for a child that was 4, 5 years old,” she said. “A guardian ad litem, maybe, but then we were using CASAs [Court Appointed Special Advocates], which are volunteers, so that’s how we were managing to get through without spending a lot of money.”
Jackson said the estimated $458,000 is on top of what was requested for attorney appointments for guardian ad litem and delinquent cases.
He hoped the state would reconsider some aspects of the advocate attorney appointments, such as setting an age minimum.
“Right now, the way it stands, I have to appoint an attorney — an advocate attorney, not a guardian ad litem — for an infant out of the hospital because it was born with drugs in its system or something and placed into DFCS,” Jackson said. “I have to appoint that baby an attorney, just like it was a criminal defendant.”
According to Rusk, the appointed attorney is supposed to act as an advocate for what the child wants, and not necessarily what’s in his or her best interest.
“When you have a child that is under the age of 10, they just want to go home,” she said, alluding to even abuse and neglect cases.
In terms of the children in need of services, Rusk said the reform intends to “remove the criminality” from cases of unruly, truant or runaway kids.
Jackson said that part of the code could expand the number of cases in Juvenile Court.
The finance committee discussed the possibility of the county hiring a firm specializing in juvenile justice for the appointments.
The Juvenile Court planned to explore the options to shore up some estimated expenses prior to the preliminary budget presentation before the county commission on June 11.
The court also asked to hire for four part-time supervisory positions and one administrative assistant to handle additional requirements of the code.
While the state set aside $5 million in grant money for programs alternate to sentencing, Forsyth County does not qualify because it’s not “a bad enough system,” said Commissioner Cindy Jones Mills, who sits on the finance and juvenile justice committees.
“It’s almost like good systems are being punished,” Mills said. “The way we were handling it was obviously working … and now we’re being told we have to handle it different and it will cost us so much more money.”
Despite population increases, juvenile delinquent numbers have remained steady in Forsyth thanks to diversion programs, many of which are provided through local nonprofit partners, Rusk said.