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Emory Law News Center


Barton Legislative Clinic students achieve goal, juvenile law reform

Emory University School of Law |

Emory Law students played a role in the passage of a landmark overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile code this legislative session, and also in new laws that affect adoptions and young victims of sexual exploitation.

“It was a great session for the Barton Legislative Clinic,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “We had three student legislative projects, all of which passed the General Assembly and were signed into law by the governor.”

As a lead partner of the JUSTGeorgia Coalition, the Barton Center has been working with state legislators, juvenile court stakeholders, and other child advocacy groups to rewrite Georgia’s 40-year-old juvenile code since 2006. Legislation for reform came close in 2012, but ultimately stalled over concern there was too little time left in session to plan how to implement and pay for the new code.

Barton faculty and students saw the law through to fruition this term, and the juvenile justice reform legislation passed unanimously, Widner said.

“Many students and faculty members, and our community partners, contributed to this effort over the years,” Widner said. “Our students worked hard on these efforts to improve the lives of children in our state.”

Among the main reforms Barton worked toward were new sentencing standards to prevent locking up low-risk juvenile offenders unnecessarily and ineffectively.

A 2012 study by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform found while the Department of Juvenile Justice spent about two-thirds of its $300 million budget on correctional facilities, more than half of the young people who entered that system wound up convicted of another crime within three years, according to a Rome News-Tribune story.

The cost of a year’s confinement for a juvenile offender is $91,126, versus about $18,000 for an adult in a Georgia prison, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The state must provide schooling, food, clothing, medical care and psychiatric services for minors who are sentenced to detention centers.

“Overall, we’re looking at really low-risk populations,” Barton’s Executive Director Melissa Carter told the AJC. “We’re giving them very intrusive interventions at a high cost to the state, and with very poor outcomes.”

The study said changing detention policy would decrease the number of juvenile offenders in out-of-home placement by about a third—from 1,908 to 1,269, by 2018—and save the state more than $88 million during that time.

Three other significant bills which became law are:

  • A bill to create a statutory framework for open adoptions in Georgia. Margaret Riley 14L, Brian Kaufman 14L, Yvana Mols 13L, and Sayali Bapat 13LLM worked with Ga. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver 72L on the bill, “which received only three ‘no’ votes in its journey through the legislative process,” Widner said. Oliver has served on Emory Law’s Advisory Board since 2004.
  • A bill to create an exception to the state’s child pornography laws for teen “sexting,” to prevent teenagers being charged with a felony for the misbehavior. Meredyth Yoon 14L and Ellis Liu 13L worked with Ga. Rep. Jay Neal on the legislation. “This one struggled to get moving and had to be amended onto another bill, HB 156,” Widner said. “The final version passed the Senate unanimously and had only one ‘no’ vote in the House.”
  • A law to help child victims of commercial sexual exploitation who are charged with prostitution vacate, modify or seal their delinquency adjudications. Jason Kang 13L, Nisha Chandiramani 08C 13PH, and Georgia State University student Alice Lee worked with Ga. Rep. Buzz Brockway. The bill was unanimously approved by committee and then added onto the juvenile justice reform bill, Widner said.