Karl Douglass: Put HOPE back in the juvenile justice system

March 15, 2014 

I believe that people who break the law should be punished. Reasonable minds can differ on what constitutes an appropriate sentence given the facts of a particular case, but I expect there is broad agreement that there should always be consequences associated with breaking the law.

I also believe that once a person has completed his or her sentence that should be the end of the consequence. People who have served their time should not continue to wear a scarlet letter that marginalizes them or prevents them from acting as anything other than a full citizen in Georgia.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of public policy that runs counter to this idea. Some of today's laws do in fact marginalize violators long past the completion of their sentences. There is one example, however, of which I recently became aware that is particularly egregious.

As the law is currently written, students in Georgia who find themselves in the custody of the juvenile justice system are not treated as residents. In other words, they are placed in the same classification as homeless students as relates to the HOPE scholarship. That may not seem like a big deal, but consider the student in the Juvenile Justice system who does make the effort to complete his or her high school studies while incarcerated.

Today, that student would be deemed ineligible to receive a HOPE scholarship or grant because of residency status. Under current law, that student would have to wait 12 months upon release to establish Georgia residency and then apply for HOPE.

There is a lot that can distract any student who has to wait 12 months before continuing his or her education, but especially a student that has already come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

The good news is that several state lawmakers, including Columbus' Calvin Smyre, are working to correct this situation. They have offered House Bill 1040 to change the law and allow students in the custody of Juvenile Justice to qualify for HOPE without waiting 12 months.

The not so good news is that Tuesday is Day 39 of the Legislative Session and HB 1040 does not appear likely for a vote before the 40th and final day.

It is true that legislation can and often has miraculously arisen and passed in the closing hours of the session. But, I don't think that will be the case with HB 1040. And, that's not a good thing. This is important legislation that will make it possible for our students who have gotten off track to take corrective action and become productive citizens.

I pray that our legislators will continue to fight for this needed change in the law so that all Georgia students, even the ones who do time in the Juvenile Justice system, will have equal access to the opportunities and advantages of a HOPE funded education.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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