BULLOCH COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Court can be a tough place for children and teenagers, whether they’re in trouble themselves, or caught in the middle of a parent’s legal trouble.
A new juvenile court in four local counties could make things go more smoothly. In a way, adding more judges is like opening more checkout lanes in the grocery store, but in this case, it’s adding judges who will deal strictly with young people to try to help them not end up in trouble again.
Donald Sheppard’s judicial oath was a first and a last, all at once. He’s becoming the first juvenile court judge for the four-county Ogeechee Judicial Circuit.
“We’re starting this, I wouldn’t say from scratch, but given that we’re taking over cases from the Superior Court, it sometimes feels like it,” he said.
When she is sworn in next month, Melissa Melton Calhoun will join Sheppard to hear cases in Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins, and Screven counties. The circuit was the last in the state to add a separate juvenile court.
“It’s needed,” Calhoun said. “Our judges have done a phenomenal job, but our counties are growing and the case loads are up dramatically.”
Judge Lovett Bennett explained that roughly a quarter of the current cases involve juveniles, either as offenders or possible wards in welfare cases. He says the laws can be very different in their cases, and can mean delays to reach a decision.
“This will speed up the help to those young people, and they won’t have to wait until we’re back over in court for adult matters,” Judge Bennett said.
Two more judges can help speed up the court log for adult cases, too.
“Everybody wants their day in court, but there’s only so many hours in a day,” Sheppard said.
Both say they’ll focus as much on rehabilitation and changing behaviors as they will on punishment.
Judge Calhoun will be sworn in June 13 in Effingham County, and she’ll hear cases there and in Screven County. Judge Sheppard will hear cases in Bulloch and Jenkins counties.
The juvenile court goes into effect July 1.