Georgia GOP lawmaker renews effort to divert 17-year-olds to juvenile court system

Going through the juvenile system would grant eligible 17-year-old defendants more privacy than in state superior court – where records are usually available for public inspection – and place them in a more rehabilitation-focused setting. (Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice)

Georgia is one of three states where a 17-year-old who is accused of a crime stands for trial alongside adults in state superior court. 

A bipartisan proposal would instead send many of these older teens to juvenile court, where Rep. Mandi Ballinger argues they should be – and where she says many people likely already assume these 17-year-olds are going. 

“They can’t even sit on the jury that might convict them in that court, but they still are adjudicated in that court,” Ballinger told reporters. 

Alabama changed its policy in the 1970s, and other nearby states, like North Carolina, have made the change more recently. 

“There are a lot of neighboring states that have recently raised the age because as science has progressed, we’ve been able to prove definitively and scientifically that those brains just aren’t developed,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger, who is a Canton Republican, has been a passionate advocate for what’s known as “raise the age” for several years. She chairs the House Juvenile Justice Committee and has said getting the measure passed this year is a top priority. She filed the bill Thursday. 

Going through the juvenile system would grant these 17-year-old defendants more privacy than in state superior court – where records are usually available for public inspection – and place them in a more rehabilitation-focused setting. 

But this year’s attempt to keep 17-year-olds out of adult prisons comes at a time when lawmakers under the Gold Dome are in a tough-on-crime mood. Proposals are on the move that would impose mandatory minimum sentences for gang recruiting and other crimes, add bail requirements for more offenses and create a way to punish local prosecutors accused of being soft on crime. 

Ballinger has tried to address any hesitation with new concessions. Her proposal would not apply to 17-year-olds who commit a gang-related crime or who are not first-time offenders. It also would not apply to 17-year-olds accused of committing the most serious offenses, like murder. 

“There’s just kind of the perception of the criminal element that they’re criminals and they need to be punished harshly. But actually, the science really doesn’t bear that out. Over 90% of 17-year-olds that are adjudicated in juvenile court will never see the courthouse again on a criminal matter,” Ballinger said. 

Her proposal will also run into long-standing practical concerns. The influential Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, for example, is opposed to the measure partly because of the strain it would put on staffing. Sheriff’s deputies are often the ones who transport young defendants to juvenile detention centers across the state, in addition to their other transport responsibilities. 

Terry Norris, executive director of the association, said his group estimates the financial impact on sheriffs’ offices to be about $1.5 million based on 5,206 reported arrests for 17-year-olds in 2020. 

Norris said a sheriff told him a recent trip took a deputy an hour and 45 minutes one way. 

“If you look at that part of it – and nothing else – it is a problem,” Norris said. “Our staffing is really not capable of taking on any more transports.” 

Ballinger’s proposal would create a 12-member implementation committee that would dig into the costs and other logistical impacts of absorbing eligible 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system. 

The new age cut-off would take effect in January 2025, but only if funding for the implementation is included in that year’s budget. 

But sheriffs have other concerns, too. 

“You’ve got older, streetwise people – I’m not calling them children; I’m calling them people – that are going to be mixed with a younger group, which is, in our estimation, not healthy for the younger group,” Norris said. 

Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, said raising the age is another step in the right direction for Georgia’s juvenile court system, which has made significant strides in reducing recidivism after former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal established the Criminal Justice Reform Council.

In Georgia, the juvenile court system has seen an average reduction of 15,000 cases since 2019, when there were more than 60,470 cases in the system, according to the Georgia Judicial Council of Administrative Office of Courts.

Georgia’s state prison system currently houses 43 people who were either 16 or 17 years old when they were incarcerated on a felony charge.

Ammar said most 17-year-olds who are now considered adults face low-level misdemeanor charges such as shoplifting, simple battery or possession of marijuana, which may put them in jail with much older people who are facing more serious criminal charges.

“They are the youngest person there and that is a trauma in its own sense,” he said. “We’re subjecting really young people to a very difficult environment and not because they are a threat to society necessarily, but because they happen to be 17.”

Crossover Day, when a bill must clear at least one chamber to have the smoothest path to becoming law, is just two weeks away. 

This story was provided by WABE content partner Georgia Recorder.