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30 YEARS BOLD


The Atlanta Constitution
Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Follow the law; give kids same bail rights as adults
Editorial
constitution@ajc.com

A violent teenager bound over to the adult courts for carjacking fares a better chance of winning bail in Georgia than an adolescent charged with shoplifting a car stereo. Despite a state law guaranteeing them the same rights to bail as adults, young offenders are routinely locked up without the opportunity to post bail and go home.

This is not an infrequent occurrence affecting a handful of kids. State statistics show that 24,944 youngsters, or 96 percent of those who entered the Georgia juvenile justice system in fiscal 1999, would have been eligible for release on bail. No wonder the U.S. Department of Justice condemned Georgia's juvenile justice in 1998 as an overcrowded and dangerous system that violated the constitutional rights of youth offenders.

Fed up with the state's indifference to the rights of children, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Georgia Alliance for Children are threatening a lawsuit if the state doesn't create a bail system for juveniles. The state ought to immediately pledge to obey its own law: "All juveniles . . . shall have the same rights to bail as adults."

Currently, juveniles and their parents are never even told that bail is possible. "People keep asking me, ‘How can this be?’" says Rick McDevitt of the Georgia Alliance for Children. "How can we take children and put them in detention for the same things that adults can walk for in about a half hour?"

Retired Newton County Juvenile Court Judge J. Virgil Costley Jr. has an answer: "The truth is that we are afraid
of our kids, and we feel they ought to be locked up, that kids do horrible things that adults wouldn't even think about doing."

This perception exists despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. The National Crime Victimization Survey found in 1998 that youth crime overall was at its lowest rate in the survey's 25-year history.

Yet, lawmakers continue to crank out get-tough laws to fight an illusory juvenile crime epidemic. Politicians balk at community-based alternatives even though such programs show far greater success rates than jail at a fraction of the cost.

A debate over bail would not even be necessary if the juvenile court system had fulfilled its original goal of rehabilitating young offenders. The commitment to help kids who have made a mistake has been replaced with a determination to punish them, especially if they're poor kids who can't afford a private attorney to get them off.

The housing of runaways, truants and petty thieves with more serious and violent offenders has proven a terrible policy. In 1999, there were more than 4,600 reports of inmate-on-inmate assaults in Georgia juvenile detention facilities.

Our investment in juvenile jails has wasted tax dollars and ruined children’s lives. Three-quarters of detention center graduates become repeat offenders.

"We just don't have a system that is designed to keep kids out of jail," says Costley. "Our system is designed to get them into jail."


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Rick McDevitt Youth Center 30 Haygood Avenue S.W. Atlanta, GA 30315 Ph. 404-688-7327 Fax. 404-524-2850
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