Georgia relaxes access to Juvenile Court

Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske

Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske

News reporters know the restrictions where juvenile offenders are concerned — they can’t be identified because of their ages and most hearings are off-limits.

The theory behind the confidentiality was that juveniles — in Georgia, anyone 16 or younger is a juvenile — sometimes do foolish things that shouldn’t be held against them as adults.

However, Georgia has loosened those restrictions in recent years and that relaxation of the law means greater access for the media and the public.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske said the state started relaxing the laws regarding juvenile offenders about 20 years ago.

“Georgia has relaxed the confidentiality of juvenile cases over the last 20 years, beginning with opening designated felony proceedings to the public,” Teske said.

Designated felonies include a list of about 30 felonies for which the youthful offender is subject to a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years in a Youth Development Campus, or what is in reality a youth prison.

A new law that goes into effect in January divides those designated felonies into Class A and Class B offenses.

“Class A felonies are serious and the offender is still subject to a maximum of five years, but Class B crimes are lowered to a maximum of 18 months in detention,” Teske said.

Juvenile Court hearings involving offenders who have previously been adjudicated on a felony are also open to the public.

About three years ago, the legislature opened all child deprivation hearings to the public. Teske was part of the process, testifying in Atlanta in support of public access. It wasn’t an easy passage.

“The bill as written did not protect the identity of kids and I argued to change the bill to allow judges to prohibit the publication of their identities,” he said. “The senator who sponsored the bill, Republican state Sen. John Wiles from Cobb, would not consent to my request during the judiciary committee meeting.”

Teske sought individual support from state representatives and got it from Atlanta Democrat Stacey Abrams. The bill passed the House and the change was consented to in conference committee.

“She made a motion to amend the bill adding language authorizing Juvenile Court judges to protect the identity of abused and neglected children while preserving the right of citizens to know what is going on in these proceedings,” he said.

Wiles didn’t fight the amendment for fear of losing the entire bill, Teske said.

Lastly, presiding judges have the authority to open any hearing that is not otherwise open.

“Of course, there must be good cause and steps taken to protect the confidentiality of the youth,” he said. “Typically, cases receiving high media profile in which the public has an interest are made open, but names and pictures of the child and parents are prohibited.”

A recent example of this in Clayton County is a case involving a 14-year-old Morrow High School student who made three bomb threats against the school in February 2012.

Teske approved the presence of news reporters during the teen’s appearance in Juvenile Court. He ordered the teen to be evaluated because of the incident and incidents in the child’s native Philadelphia, but not detained in YDC.

Teske said he strives to seek balance, not absolute restriction of the public and media from Juvenile Court.

“While I definitely protect the identity of youth, I am a strong advocate for balancing this confidentiality with the interest of the public to know what is going on in the juvenile courts of this state,” he said.

Teske said there are ways to let the public know what is happening without compromising the interest of the offender to his or her identity confidential.

“These confidentiality laws are not intended to conduct ‘Star Chamber’-like proceedings,” he said. “When Juvenile Court judges are allowed to conduct proceedings absent some form of observation and critique, there is a risk for abuse.”

Teske was personally involved in the aftermath of a Juvenile Court scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., where two judges took advantage of the confidentiality laws to create a system of kickbacks that netted them millions of dollars.

Called “Kids for Cash,” the scheme involved the judges finding juveniles guilty of offenses without benefit of counsel and placing them in one of two private, for-profit juvenile facilities.

As a result of the investigation, juvenile offenders who appeared before the two judges between 2003 and 2008 had their adjudications of guilt vacated and records expunged.

The two judges were convicted. One got 28 years in federal prison; the other, 17 1/2 years.

“I was asked to go there to testify in favor of new laws to help prevent this abuse from happening again,” he said. “Also, a book was written about it and I was asked to provide a blurb describing it.”

Teske’s advocacy for juvenile justice reform has garnered him state and national attention. Gov. Nathan Deal called him a “revolutionary” in July when he recommended Teske for a Henry Toll Fellowship.

Teske’s approach to juvenile justice has become a pilot program for courts across the country. In almost 10 years, the number of children arrested in Clayton County schools has dropped 83 percent.