Straighten up or we'll sue

ACLU joins push for juvenile bail

If those in charge of overseeing the state's juvenile justice system continue to ignore the law, the Georgia Alliance for Children, a local advocacy group — joined by the American Civil Liberties Union — says it's prepared to sue to ensure that children charged with minor crimes are allowed bail.

As CL goes to press, the two groups are filing a letter with state officials demanding that statewide guidelines for allowing children to receive bail be drawn up and distributed. If the state fails to respond in 30 days, they're filing suit.

"This is a mammoth issue," says Rick McDevitt, Alliance director, pointing to state Department of Juvenile Justice figures showing that some 96 percent of all juvenile under state supervision — almost 25,000 children by 1999 figures — were eligible for bail. "And they're just not getting it." (See "Dear Mom, I'm spending the night in jail," CL Feb. 28)

The results? Overcrowded juvenile jails where non-violent petty criminals are packed in, often alongside older juveniles with serious, sometimes violent, histories.

"The fact is, most juvenile crime is not serious. It's property offenses like shoplifting or trespassing," McDevitt says.

"What we hope ... is that the Georgia Supreme Court would adopt a set of rules akin to the way the adult system works: If you're arrested for jumping a MARTA turnstile, there are bail schedules and you don't have to sit around a jail cell waiting for a judge for four day," says Gerald Weber, legal director for the ACLU's Georgia chapter.

Although no state officials have yet received the letter, Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez has in the past agreed that bail or some similar measure might be helpful in correcting what he has termed an "incarceration-oriented" system.

Even so, some juvenile judges say that, even when they offer bail, few parents take up the offer — whether through a shortage of cash or a lack of concern for their kids.

It's a hairy issue, agrees McDevitt, who says parents with so little concern for their children may themselves be guilty of neglect.

At this point, he's just interested in getting the issue on the table.

"If we can just start a good-faith discussion to try to figure out a system to protect these kids and ensure their right to bail, then we'll work with everybody," he says. "And we won't sue."??