Juvenile Law Commission Meets in Savannah

How bad is juvenile crime? And do the courts take it seriously enough? More than a hundred people packed the meeting room at the Coastal Georgia Center yesterday. Members of the joint Senate and House Juvenile Code Rewrite Commission are touring Georgia, listening to ideas on how to improve the juvenile justice system.

Dozens of people, including judges, attorneys, police officers, child advocates and victims of juvenile crime showed up and voiced their concerns and suggestions. Yesterday's meeting was the second of five planned by the commission.

One reason the commission came to Savannah was the city's increasing problem with juvenile crime. Juvenile crime seems to be the root of many evils here, and these are not petty incidents, but violent crimes.

We are seeing more and more kids and teenagers turning to crime, and even the adults that are going to court have lengthy juvenile criminal pasts.

The juvenile law commission is facing a daunting task, rewriting the laws that govern Georgia's kids.

It all started a couple years ago in Carrollton, Georgia, when a boy murdered eight-year-old Amy Yates.

"She was on her way to a friend's house. At some point she had encountered the young boy and he took her into the woods and strangled her to death," said Amy's father, Tom Yates of Carrollton.

Yates was shocked to learn that the young boy was only 12 years old. "He was allowed to get away with a lot of things, like theft by taking, breaking and entering, vandalism, terroristic threats."

Under Georgia's current law, if a child under 13 commits murder, the courts cannot try him or her as an adult. So Amy's killer is only serving two years in a youth detention center. And the public will never know about his criminal past.

That will change if Amy's Law is passed. "Juveniles that commit these crimes, their records are sealed and the community needs to be informed about what crimes are going on in their neighborhoods, whether it's a juvenile or adult," said Yates.

Another victim of juvenile crime, Virginia Grotheer, agrees that the public needs to know about violent kid criminals. "This is not play school, this is the real thing," she said.

A teenager attacked her at the Savannah Kmart on Montgomery Cross Road in 2003. "All of a sudden, someone came up behind me and grabbed me around the neck."

He was trying to steal her purse.

Juvenile crime is climbing statewide, and Savannah is having an especially tough time with it. Between 2003 and 2004, juvenile crime in Chatham County jumped 18 percent. It's jumped another 12 percent already this year.

Some say that kids and teenagers commit as much as 70 percent of the crimes here.

"It's a little frightening that we are still seeing this increase in crime and violence with our youth with what we've done," said Judge Patricia Stone.

There are all kinds of programs in Chatham County designed to help troubled teens. And police have tried to crack down on the problem.

But judges say the state, the Department of Juvenile Justice specifically, needs to give them more authority to use those resources and more flexibility on punishing kid criminals.

"There are some parts that work well and we don't need to fix what's not broken," said the department's Albert Murray. "But there are some parts that can be dramatically improved. That's what should come and will come from this committee."

Many believe until now, the state has been more worried about the budget than the best interest of our kids.

"When you limit detention and you limit the sentencing options without providing funding and additional resources on the front end for prevention, you end up harming both the community and we are not safe," said Judge Stone.

The juvenile law commission hopes to be finished rewriting the juvenile code by December, 2006. It was originally written in 1971, and since has only had bandage-type revisions. We'll have to wait and see how much is changed and how it will effect Georgia's juveniles.

Reported by: Michelle Paynter, mpaynter@wtoc.com