ATLANTA -- A new bill that has the blessing of Gov. Nathan Deal aims to draw a clearer line between youthful disruptions to be handled at school and more serious offences that call for police involvement.
"This is another way that the governor wants to address the school-to-prison pipeline," said Jen Talaber, Deal's spokeswoman.
That "pipeline" is a term used by juvenile justice reformers nationwide to refer to policies they say have the effect of criminalizing youthful behavior and increasing the chances that young people eventually end up in prison. The Department of Justice has sued several school systems across the country for such policies and practices.
One school policy unpopular with reformers is arresting young people for nonviolent disruptions at school.
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The new Senate Bill 367 would amend the part of Georgia law that makes it a crime to disrupt operations of public schools. That law was meant to address adults coming to schools and making trouble, Talaber said, but it's been used to charge students for, say, being too unruly in the stands at a basketball game.
The bill would require boards of education to write up a system of progressive discipline that defines what schools should handle with detention, suspension or some other in-house punishment and what should require a visit from law enforcement.
The bill is scheduled for a hearing Thursday.
State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, said about 35 fellow senators had signed onto the bill when he filed it last week. That's more than half the chamber and includes both Republicans and Democrats.
"That's a very good indication how well-received this is this particular legislation," Kennedy said. "But I also think it's a good indication of how well the governor's criminal justice reform initiatives are being received."
Deal, a former Juvenile Court judge, started on major criminal justice reworks in 2011. That's the year he first appointed a blue-ribbon committee to recommend changes both to adult and juvenile justice. Since then, the Legislature and the governor have endorsed recommendations from council experts, such as setting up more diversion programs and widening parole eligibility.
The state's prison population hit a high of nearly 55,000 in 2012 but was less than 52,000 by the end of last year. Kennedy said he has yet to get any push back on the new bill.
Another part of the bill says that children ages 13 and under will be locked up only for the most serious crimes.
It doesn't happen often that children so young get detained for misdemeanors, said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia. But it happens sometimes, and his group helped work on the change -- and the list of offenses -- that would still merit arrest.
Under the bill, serious violent and sexual offenses will still result in arrest, but something such as a simple schoolyard fist fight need not end in a night in jail.
The bill eliminates detention for less-serious charges "while preserving law enforcement's ability to detain for serious" ones, said Spahos.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail email@example.com