These judges shape our community

Published 5:33 pm Thursday, November 21, 2019

By Jason Swindle
Senior partner, criminal defense attorney at Swindle Law Group

Summer 1987 – West Georgia – A boy I knew rather well thought he was smarter than his mother. The 14-year-old had a meticulous plan to sneak out of the house, take the car for a ride, and pick up some friends. As it turned out, he made a critical mistake by leaving the back door a little too open, which created a draft throughout the house. His mother checked the door, his room and the garage.

Sheriff Jack Bell, who spent many nights at the Carroll Co. jail got a phone call. By the end of the night, this boy was spent the night with Sheriff Bell and Tony Reeves hearing about the two roads a man can take.

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The next day, he was summoned by Tommy Greer, the juvenile court judge. He received a similar speech, but it was a bit harsher. The judge had known the boy since he was born and had always considered him a son.

I cannot say that the boy became a saint afterward. But, his experience seems to have left quite an impression on him. He would never be summoned by the sheriff or juvenile court judge under similar circumstances.

That was a long time ago. Today, the challenges that children face have grown exponentially. As a superior court judge once told me, “the juvenile court judge is the most important public servant in the county. An effective judge will lay the foundation for a prosperous community. An ineffective judge will unintentionally lead to the community’s downfall.”

The good news is that in west Georgia, we have some of the top-notch juvenile court judges in the state. I have personally appeared before many of them on juvenile delinquency cases. These are cases that would be crimes if committed by an adult.

While the judges I have appeared before share many traits, I have noticed that each have a character attribute that stands out:

Judge Thomas Parmer (Carroll) has the calm wisdom to provide a juvenile the chance to change.

Judge Joseph Wyant (Coweta, Heard) has the passion to help children who are walking down the low road in life.

Judge Michael Key (Troup) has the courage to protect juveniles by suppressing illegal evidence during delinquency hearings (trials).

Retired Judge Peggy Walker (Douglas) had the creativity to structure a rehabilitation plan that placed each child in the best position to succeed.

Long-time Juvenile Judge Mark Murphy (now a superior court judge) (Haralson, Polk) defined fairness in his courtroom.

But, these judges are tasked with the most difficult responsibilities. Poverty, untreated mental illness, drug abuse, and dysfunctional families are the leading causes that place a child in a courtroom or juvenile detention center. To make matters worse, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and the courts lack the resources to comprehensively attack these critical issues. As a result, too many people become crime victims and too many children later end up becoming inmates in the adult criminal justice system despite the best efforts of our judges.

While detention in juvenile facilities is necessary for some of the most violent children, those who are redeemable oftentimes become acquainted with older inmates who teach them the ways of crime and darkness. Too often, these less violent offenders choose a life that results in repeat visits to county jails and prison.

But, there is hope. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Social Circle Police Chief Tyrone Oliver to lead the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. He is a pragmatic and grounded leader who is committed to working with our judges.

For instance, Oliver is a supporter of Clayton County’s Second Chance Court which seems to be a promising initiative. It deemphasizes incarceration in favor of extremely close supervision and intense counseling. The results are encouraging. The number of juveniles in detention has been cut by two-thirds and recidivism is far lower than the statewide average.

This initiative mirrors former Gov. Nathan Deal’s adult criminal justice reforms, which saved our taxpayers millions of dollars.

With enough resources from the state as well as charitable contributions to our juvenile courts, we can assist our juvenile court judges and the devoted men and women of DJJ carry out their mission of turning delinquent children into adults who make our community a better place to live.

The next time you see your juvenile court judge, DJJ employee, CASA volunteer, or anyone who supports the juvenile court in your county, please consider thanking them.