Georgia’s superior court judges are hindering progress in child welfare and juvenile justice. Juvenile courts should be independent with complete autonomy. However, because the state legislature has given Georgia superior court judges authority to appoint juvenile court judges, many superior court judges confuse that with the authority to govern day-to-day juvenile court operations, an authority that is notably absent from the statute. This leads to undue intrusion and overreach by some superior court judges.
Juvenile court judicial appointment decisions are made based on personal and/or political affiliations, without consideration of experience or knowledge. Most superior court judges lack adequate training in juvenile issues, and as such are not equipped with the knowledge to appropriately match children with the needed services. Although juvenile court judges are required to hear matters in superior court, superior court judges have no such corresponding requirement. Similarly, superior court judges don’t take yearly continuing judicial courses in juvenile matters, though the converse is true. This creates a scheme rife with problems.
I served as a juvenile court judge for 14 and a half years, with an additional 10 years in private practice and prosecutorial juvenile court experience. The flaw in Georgia’s child welfare and juvenile justice system is the inapposite belief among unlearned superior court judges, that juvenile court judges serve at their pleasure, and for their pleasure. This misguided belief leaves children out of the equation. Superior court judges expect juvenile court judges to manage and work superior court caseloads, to come when they call, make campaign contributions, and generally do whatever the superior court judge conjures up. Georgia’s juvenile court judges are relegated to the positions of mere political puppets, and campaign contributors.
Juvenile court judges should not be expected to perform superior court caseloads or face unwarranted removal. Many see juvenile court work as insignificant and unimportant, being a mere place holder until the child ascends to adult court— which leads to a reliance on juvenile court judges to perform superior court duties at the expense of juvenile court work.
Judicial discretion and the best interest of the child take a backseat. But, when a child commits a heinous crime, or is the victim of one, people wonder why? And how could it happen? Because the system is broken and needs an overhaul. The inability of the juvenile court judge to focus on juvenile justice detracts from the ability to develop and institute programs and solutions to address matters plaguing children, youth, and families. The answer then, is to revamp the system. Many jurisdictions have gotten it right.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, juvenile courts are divisions of district court and judges are elected for eight-year terms. District Court judges are divided into divisions: civil, criminal, or juvenile. Each division is equal. This model is replicated in many jurisdictions across the country in various forms. In Colorado, district court judges are appointed by the governor from a list of candidates recommended by a judicial nominating committee. Judges rotate across divisions; no judge has authority over any other judge. Similarly, in California, trial judges are elected by popular nonpartisan vote, this includes juvenile court judges, who are equal in rank to every other state court level judge. These models allow juvenile court judges to focus on the work of juvenile justice, develop less harmful treatment strategies, and employ workable solutions with adequate oversight, like the novel approach to youth detention in California.
Children are of little importance in Georgia’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Superior court judges roll the dice with children because children cannot vote and pose no threat to them remaining in office. Priority is given to campaign donors and lobbyists because donors and lobbyists advance their personal—and oftentimes financial— interest.
While it may be less costly and less time-consuming for juvenile court judges to be selected by a superior court bench, it would be more beneficial to those impacted by the juvenile justice system for juvenile court judges to be selected by the electorate. This model would allow juvenile court jurists to focus on the important work of the field.
In an effort to level the playing field, a legislative rewrite is needed. A rewrite that contemplates the children, and their needs and best interests. There is no place for favoritism in child welfare and juvenile justice. To create a system of competence for the children and families served by Georgia’s juvenile courts, Juvenile Court should be an independent division of court, elected by the citizens in term elections. This would best achieve the goal of advancing child welfare. This scheme would allow those with proper qualifications, skill, and acumen to develop strategies to address issues affecting child welfare and juvenile justice. It would allow those with knowledge, skill, and experience the opportunity to achieve successful outcomes for children and families, without the threat of removal for failure to meet the expectations, whims, or political obligations, of any particular superior court judge. It would allow juvenile court judges the opportunity to focus on the work of their chosen field, and it would allow progress to occur.
The current Georgia system makes children victims of the political games played by politicians and superior court judges, in arenas to which children aren’t admitted, and in which they have no voice. It’s time to level the playing field. It’s time to change the game of politics of child welfare and juvenile justice. Stop victimizing Georgia children!