Statesboro’s mayor and council recently endorsed sending Gov. Nathan Deal a letter supporting the creation of a juvenile court judgeship in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit.
The Statesboro-based, four-county circuit is the only one of the state’s 49 superior court circuits that does not have a juvenile court. Instead, the three judges of the Superior Courts also handle juvenile cases.
The governor cannot create a juvenile court in the circuit. That would be a decision for the Superior Court judges, or their chief judge, working with the county governments. But with Chief Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. retiring from the Superior Court bench July 31, the city’s letter asks Deal to appoint a new Superior Court judge favorable to creating a juvenile court judgeship.
“Of the 159 counties in the State of Georgia, only four – Bulloch, Jenkins, Screven and Effingham – do not have a designated Juvenile Court Judge to adjudicate their juvenile law caseload,” states a revised draft of the city’s letter.
“Instead, in this Ogeechee Judicial Circuit, the three Superior Court Justices sit in judgment of juveniles, in addition to their normal civil and criminal lawsuits,” the letter continues. “We are asking that with the pending retirement of Judge Woodrum on July 31, 2018, that you use this discretionary appointment to right this wrong and ensure the children of this district receive the special attention their cases deserve.”
District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum made the motion at the June 19 Statesboro City Council meeting, but did not read the letter aloud. The vote to send it was 3-0, with one member absent and another seat vacant and only filled after a special election runoff that day. Mayor Jonathan McCollar also voiced his support.
The letter still had not been mailed, but the version quoted here is the final wording, Boyum said Friday. Council members were in the process of adding their signatures, he said.
“Juvenile justice is kind of a whole area of law in itself, and the state has allocated resources for us to have a juvenile court judge, and it makes no sense not to take advantage of that funding, especially if it will benefit the kids in our area,” Boyum said.
Will cost more
As confirmed by the state Council of Juvenile Court Judges, the circuit would receive $100,000 in annual state funding if a juvenile court judgeship is created. That might provide the judge’s salary, but it would not cover all the other expenses of a separate juvenile court. Those expenses, and whether the number of juvenile cases warrants having a separate judge, have been decisive concerns for the circuit’s Superior Court judges over the years, Woodrum said in a June 25 interview.
“Now, I know on the state level they want to have a juvenile court judge,” Woodrum said. “After discussions through the years, we decided that that was not in our circuit’s best interest financially because we were already accomplishing that. It was going to cost additional money for the counties to have to fund that.”
He said that he couldn’t “think of one juvenile, whether it be with the Department of Juvenile Justice or the Department of Family and Children Services, that has gone lacking” during his years on the court, with the Superior Court judges handling the cases.
“When you have another court system set up you’re going to have to have administrative staff, you’re going to have to have a secretary, … a court reporter, … courtrooms,” Woodrum said. “We don’t have enough courtrooms as it is at this point. In addition, there is not enough workload there to justify a full-time judge.”
The Ogeechee Circuit’s position on this could change when he retires, but that will be up to Judge F. Gates Peed and the other judges, Woodrum said. Peed, who as the next longest-serving judge will become chief judge, was not reached for an interview with a phone call to his office in June or voicemail messages Friday afternoon.
Muldrew in favor
The city’s letter invokes the circuit’s newest Superior Court judge, Judge Michael Muldrew, elected in July 2016 and sworn it at the beginning of 2017, as a supporter of creating a juvenile court.
In his campaign, “new Superior Court Judge Michael Muldrew stated his belief that our Circuit should also have its own Juvenile Court Judge. …,” the letter notes before asserting, “Governor, by making a pro-juvenile court appointment, you can send a clear message to the citizens of our area that the interests of the juveniles in our area are a priority.”
Besides the availability of state funding, the city letter notes “that the law changed significantly in January 2014” and asserts that “the courts are struggling with overloaded dockets” resulting in the judges having “increasingly less time to give proper attention to the complexities involved in juvenile cases.”
State legislation that took effect in 2014 codified Georgia’s laws related to juvenile delinquency and related matters, grouping existing laws and adding some new definitions.
Muldrew confirmed Friday that he has not changed his mind about a need for a separate juvenile court. For 20 years before being elected judge, he was an assistant district attorney, a prosecutor, in the circuit.
“I’m still in support of our circuit having a juvenile court judge, but I’m only one of three judges, and that decision will ultimately lie with the chief judge,” Muldrew said.
The juvenile court judge would not be any of the Superior Court judges, but a judge they would appoint. Muldrew added that he believes the Superior Court judges are handling juvenile cases well.
“I do believe that the Superior Court is giving them the attention that they need, but with more resources, more attention could be given,” he said.
Hundreds of cases
In 2017, the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Public Defenders Office opened 273 new juvenile delinquency cases, Kelley Kidd, an attorney in that office, said Friday. He suggested that the total number of juvenile cases each year is much higher, in the range of 500-700, including cases handled by private attorneys and those related to dependency and termination of parental rights.
Kidd has been handling juvenile cases here since he began practicing law in Statesboro in 1995 and as a public defender with the state program since it was established in 2005.
"I've seen a growing need for a juvenile court all these years as the number of juvenile cases have expanded and the severity, the numbers of really serious juvenile cases, have expanded and the number of cases involving multiple defendants and complicated situations have expanded, and finally, as the law has expanded as juvenile court law has gone through a number of changes,” Kidd said.
Under state law, juvenile detention hearings have to be held within 72 hours. Without a juvenile court, this often results in these being “shoehorned into the middle of the Superior Court docket,” Kidd said. Sometimes, alleged juvenile offenders, victims and their families end up seeing more than one judge in different locations, he said.
Last of 49
Eric J. John, executive director of Georgia’s Council of Juvenile Court Judges, confirmed that the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit is the only one where the superior court judges still handle all the juvenile cases, without a separate juvenile court. When the state launched its funding program in 2000, about 14 circuits did not have juvenile court judges, he said.
“When that funding passed, little by little, all those 14 circuits except one started to appoint juvenile court judges and then to draw down some of the state funding for it,” John said.
The council, set up by the state, counts the juvenile court judges as members and handles the funding. John said he has talked to the Ogeechee Circuit’s judges and the district’s court administrator a number of times over the years as they have considered the possibility of a juvenile court judgeship.
Two years ago, they had that discussion again when the funding increased from $85,000 to $100,000 for a circuit this size. The Superior Court judges do not receive any additional pay for handling juvenile cases, and the circuit does not get the $100,000 without having a juvenile court.
Not surprisingly, John described some upsides to having a juvenile court. But interviewed first, he noted the same kinds of costs to counties that Woodrum did and said it remains a local decision.
“It’s not really like one single decision of, ‘Can we have a judge or not?’” John said. “I guess it entails a lot getting together with a lot of people because you have to, you know, put the court together. You have to have courtroom space, you have to have personnel. So it’s a joint effort by the counties and the cities and the Superior Court.”
At this point, the city of Statesboro has no role in funding the Superior Court.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.