Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman is warning his counties about changes in state law coming next year that could increase local costs for juvenile court.
Rickman spoke to Stephens County Commissioners at their meeting Tuesday about changes to the state juvenile code that will take effect on January 1, 2014.
According to Rickman, the current system allows a juvenile probation officer to do much of the prosecutorial work in juvenile cases, with his office only getting involved if needed, such as in the case of a juvenile court trial.
However, Rickman said the new state law will change all of that.
“It mandates that all of these things juvenile probation officers did cannot be done by them,” said Rickman. “It has to be done by an attorney, the District Attorney, or his or her designee. What that means is every petition that is filed has to be filed by a prosecutor. Every case has to be reviewed by a prosecutor. That is a tremendous increase from what we have had.”
Even under the current system, Rickman said his office employs a contract attorney to handle the prosecution of juvenile cases because of the workload.
He said it is a system that has worked well for his office and the circuit.
“What we have done is we have a lawyer named Alton Johnson, who is a private lawyer,” said Rickman. “There is a provision under the law where I can swear in a special assistant district attorney and I swore him in and we pay him at the same rate that appointed lawyers get paid to defend cases.”
In 2012, the Mountain Judicial Circuit handled nearly 800 juvenile cases, which under the forthcoming law Rickman says would be more than enough work for a full-time juvenile prosecutor.
However, he is not recommending hiring one yet, nor will he opt out of handling juvenile court altogether as the new law allows him to do, saying that even if he opted out, the county would still be responsible for hiring staff to handle juvenile court.
Rickman said for the time being, he feels the best option is to continue with the current contract attorney arrangement.
“Bear in mind, it is going to cost more money starting in January 2014, but here is our savings, we are not paying benefits, we are not paying office space,” said Rickman.
He said he needs flexibility.
“Nobody in Georgia, because this is a new bill, can go to their commissions and say I know what it is going to cost, because we do not know yet,” said Rickman.
He says his main reason for continuing with the status quo is because a bill will come up in the next legislative session that, if passed, would fund the necessary positions for small judicial circuits like the Mountain Judicial Circuit.
“That is what we want because I can fold that person into my office and we can rock along and get the job done,” said Rickman.
If that bill passes, the position would be funded starting next July.
Rickman said if it does not pass, he would re-visit the issue at that time and possibly pursue a flat rate for the contract attorney rather than an hourly rate.
Stephens County Commissioners thanked Rickman for the information.