County to bear cost of juvenile justice reform, judge says

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus

Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus

LAWRENCEVILLE — The state’s gain in savings is the county’s loss when it comes to juvenile justice reform, a judge said Wednesday.

Gwinnett’s Chief Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus blasted a law passed by the General Assembly this year, which he called a “monster,” saying it added processes that will make the system harder to manage and do little to help at-risk children. And while it promises to save the state millions of dollars, he said the county governments in Georgia would have to bear the cost instead.

Rodatus made the comments Wednesday while presenting his request for additional money in the county’s 2014 budget.

Rodatus asked for five more staffers — four of which had been lost in an efficiency study four years ago — to deal with the reform, which he called an “unnecessary and ridiculous expense.”

During Wednesday’s session with a citizens board reviewing budget requests alongside Commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, District Attorney Danny Porter also requested two staffers to help with a shift in the law.

“It does nothing to improve the lot of children in the state of Georgia,” Rodatus said, adding that he expects the population of homeless teenagers to increase because of the laws about runaways.

Among the chief complaints are provisions that allow children to have a lawyer to represent the child’s wants in addition to the guardian ad litem, assigned to look out for the best interests of a child. The idea is silly, Rodatus said, since most children want to return to an abused home even when it is not a good idea.

Rodatus also complained about the increased threshold and process to place a child in detention, which increases the need for probation officers to oversee a child that remains in the community.

While officials said they will have a hard time determining the potential impact on the county’s indigent defense fund for the hiring of additional lawyers, the cost of increased treatment and programs should be borne by a $400,000 grant from the state.

But Juvenile Court Clerk Jesse Lawler said the county is unlikely to qualify for that grant in the future, since the law requires that the already low rate of detention be decreased by 20 percent.

“Probably, it is going to turn into a very treatment oriented system,” Lawler said, adding that he is concerned that some unstable children will remain in the community instead of in state facilities. “That’s very good for the kids … but we have to be prepared for that (cost).”