Ads Hammer Juvenile Justice Child Advocates Call for Changes

Article excerpt

ATLANTA -- A child, apparently of elementary school age, is lying shirtless on a concrete floor in a jail cell, curled up in a tight ball to try to ward off an unseen menace looming just off camera.

"Unthinkable things happen to children in the Georgia Juvenile Justice system," warns the text of the ad, part of a statewide multi-media campaign being launched by a child-advocacy group. "Call Gov. Barnes and scream for children who can't scream for themselves."

Other ads in the series allude to young kids arrested for minor non-violent offenses being locked up with older youths convicted of rape and murder.

"We came up with themes to get people's attention and stir an outcry for action," said Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children. "If it means shocking people's sensibilities, so be it."

A Barnes spokeswoman called the campaign "unfortunate and misleading." Joselyn Butler said the commitment of the governor and his administration to the system has been strong.

"Since Orlando Martinez became commissioner . . . he has faced problems within the Department of Juvenile Justice head-on and made tremendous improvement," she said. "In addition, Gov. Barnes has significantly increased the department's budget."

More than two years after the department signed an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department promising improvements at Georgia's juvenile detention centers, the alliance is calling for the state to:

-- Redirect $50 million of the juvenile justice budget into community-based alternatives to incarceration such as in-home supervision or electronic monitoring. The department's budget for the fiscal year starting tomorrow is nearly $272 million, a 7.9 percent increase over this year.

-- Create a formula for distributing those funds that encourages counties to reduce the number of kids they ship to state detention centers.

-- Open juvenile-court hearings in criminal cases to make it easier for the public to see how young people are treated.

-- Make bail available to juveniles, as it is in the adult criminal justice system, to help reduce overcrowding caused by youths being held in detention centers while they await sentencing. …