OAKWOOD - "Do You Know the Law: An Engaged Conversation with Our Youth and Local Law Enforcement" brought Gainesville/Hall County area youngsters to the University of North Georgia's Oakwood campus Wednesday night.
Commissioner the Department of Juvenile Justice Avery Niles said the forum targeted the 12 to 21 age group and he hoped by beginning in Hall County more such forums would take place across the state in every district where there is a state juvenile detention facility. Niles said he wants to educate young people about law enforcement, responsible choices and consequences of their actions.
"My hope is that they will embrace the law, know what the law is, and know how the law applies to them," Niles said. "The key to it is education; educating them on how the law applies to them as well as providing opportunities so that they will not become offenders that violate the law."
Niles said he reached out to church and youth groups as well as area schools to spread the word about the forum and get at risk youngsters involved and informed.
"The goal is to get them out and discuss the issues at hand," Niles added.
Andre' Cheek, Education Consultant for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said the forum's purpose is pro-active instead of re-active.
"We're trying to get information out to the teens in our community and the surrounding area about learning more about the law, what they need to know to keep them out of trouble so they don't enter our juvenile system," Cheek said. "The Commissioner wants to educate the teens before school starts back about misdemeanors and felonies, making good choices where friends are concerned,and what do to and what not to do on school campuses."
Hall County juvenile Judges Cliff Jolliff and Mary Carden, Sheriff Gerald Couch, and Gainesville Police Major Paul Sherman joined Commissioner Niles on the panel that spoke to the youngsters, who were treated to a pizza dinner before the forum began in the Continuing Education Building. Chase Thomas of Gainesville, now a student at Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, was also on the panel.
Thomas, whose troubles with the law began when he was 13, managed to turn his life around after he left the Eastman Youth Detention Center at age 17 in 2008. He is pursuing a Bachelors in Business and Missions degree, he is married and he and his wife are expecting a child. Thomas said he hopes the young audience learns from the judges and other system officials but also from someone who has been on both sides of the law.
"There is an out, there is an upside, there's always a way out," Thomas said. "That's the goal, to get them into a path of success early on, that way they don't have to struggle like I did."