Georgia may start prosecuting 17-year-olds as juveniles instead of adults

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
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The Georgia House of Representatives has passed House Bill 272, sponsored by House Juvenile Justice Chairwoman Rep. Mandi Ballinger. This bill, which is now headed to the Georgia Senate, seeks to bring the majority of 17-year-old alleged offenders under the purview of juvenile court — a policy change long sought by juvenile justice reform advocates, legislators, parents and, of course, teenagers. Alleged offenders of violent crimes like murder and rape would remain in adult court.

Currently, Georgia is one of only three states, along with Texas and Wisconsin, that continue to consider all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system.  Such youth in these states are processed through adult court, regardless of the severity of offense.  In all other states, these youth are processed through juvenile court.

“We know from our own incredibly successful juvenile justice reforms that the juvenile justice system takes a more holistic approach than the adult system,” said Ballinger, “And seventeen-year-olds naturally have a great capacity for change.  With the right supports and services in place, you can redirect a kid’s bad behavior into more socially positive conduct and reduce the likelihood that the youth will commit offenses as an adult. So, the best place to get the best outcome for the majority of teenage offenders is juvenile court.”

Georgia’s own juvenile justice system is already nationally known for its effective use of evidence-based therapies for youth at low and medium risk to reoffend. These therapies in combination with other juvenile justice reforms enacted since 2013 have worked to reduce juvenile incarceration by 56 percent and have helped adjudicated youth with social skills development, cognitive restructuring, problem-solving skills, and crisis management, education and job readiness training without risking public safety.

Dr. Erica Fener Sitkoff, Executive Director at Voices for Georgia’s Children, states, “Seventeen-year-olds are not adults, and what lots of good scientific research tells us is that they can’t be.  The human brain is not fully developed until a person is about 25 years old. What’s more, the part of the brain that controls rational thinking is the very last part of the brain to develop. Therefore, if we want to change the course of a youth’s behavior – and life – we need to pay attention to the science and respond appropriately when a teenager misbehaves.”

House Bill 272 does not, however, change the way the state treats youth who commit the most serious violent offenses, commonly referred to in Georgia as the “seven deadly sins” — although there are more than seven.  Under current law, when a child as young as 13 commits an offense such as rape or murder, that youth will be automatically prosecuted in the adult criminal justice system and subject to lengthy criminal punishments.  HB 272 does not change that.

“This bill really helps those youth who made a dumb mistake,” says Melissa Carter, Executive Director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University School of Law. “These kids do not need to be treated like they are 35 or 50 years old, but rather, treated like the kid they are – some facing challenges at home, some dealing with developmental delays or some, just being normal kids who are exceptionally subject to peer pressure or simply not thinking about consequences at all.”

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