A proposal to revise the minimum mandatory age for adult criminal prosecutions is slowly making its way through the Georgia statehouse.
House Bill 462 would bring the Peachtree State in line with almost every other state. This provision would eliminate the conclusive presumption that 17-year-old offenders must be tried as adults. During legislative hearings, Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger has cited data during House committee meetings showing that keeping teenagers out of jails and prisons where adults are incarcerated gives younger offenders a significantly better chance of rehabilitation and provides them with privacy in not having their criminal records become public, which could hinder their career opportunities.
The bill cleared the house on a bipartisan 145-22 vote and is now pending in the State Senate.
Background on Juvenile Justice
“I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole,” crooned Merle Haggard in Mama Tried. Today, serious youthful indiscretions usually don’t result in that much pain, but they are nevertheless painful. More on that below. Overall, juvenile justice is essentially a blend between criminal law punishment and family law rehabilitation.
An unstated criminal law presumption is that if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. In other words, individuals are individually responsible for criminal acts. Some acts are so bad that the offender should be removed from society, before s/he hurst someone else.
An unstated presumption in family law is that a bad biological caregiver is better than a foster caregiver. If the state must remove a child, the state usually bends over backwards to find a relative. Foster care is a last resort.
Rather predictably, these unstated presumptions often conflict with one another. This conflict occurs in all three major areas of juvenile crime:
- In Personam Offenses: This Latin phrase means, wait for it, in person. Offenses in this category include assault, robbery, and sexual battery. Frequently, these offenses are gang related. One person commits the offense while three or four others observe it or at least know about it. Legally, all these participants are guilty of in personam offenses.
- Status Offenses: MIP (minor in possession of alcohol) is a status offense. Only a minor can commit this infraction. Minors also cannot smoke, skip school, stay out after curfew, drive motor vehicles without a license, or buy lottery tickets.
- Delinquency: The final catch-all juvenile justice category includes most property crimes, such as theft and vandalism. These offenses, along with status offenses, are almost always nonviolent misdemeanors. Therefore, although children could be charged as adults in these situations, such prosecutions are extremely rare.
A Marietta criminal defense lawyer also deals with an informal three-tier juvenile law enforcement system.
The juvenile arrest rate has decreased significantly since the 1990s. That drop might mean juvenile crime is lower. More than likely, the lower rate means officers aren’t arresting children for delinquency and status offenses. Instead, they spend a few minutes in the back of a police car, get their names added to an informal naughty list of juvenile troublemakers, and receive stern lectures, either from police officers, their parents, or most likely both.
Officers often arrest children on the naughty list, even if they committed nonviolent misdemeanors. Lots of people have lots of explanations for why the aforementioned go forth and sin no more approach apparently didn’t work in these situations. The bottom line is that it didn’t work. Therefore, these children usually pass through the system, but removal to a secure halfway house or other juvenile facility is rare.
The gloves come off if a child committed an in personam offense, even if it’s a first offense. These children usually go through the system. Second chances are rare in these situations. Furthermore, although removal is rare, it’s certainly not uncommon.
Juvenile brain development undercuts everything in juvenile law. The risk-reward part of the brain doesn’t develop until the early 20s. Young children chase balls into busy streets and refuse to brush their teeth because they can’t understand the possible consequences of these actions. Older children join violent gangs and beat up classmates in schoolyards for the same reason.
Largely based on this science, between 2005 and 2016, the Supreme Court limited harsh juvenile sentences, like LWOPs (life without parole), in a series of decisions. But the Supremes took a U-turn with 2021’s Jones vs. Mississippi. A court LWOP’d a then 15-year-old boy who stabbed his grandfather during an argument over a girl. A divided Supreme Court rejected the previous limits on such sentences. “In such a case, a discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote for the majority.
HB 462 Specifics
Georgia, Wisconsin, and Texas are the only three states where juveniles 17 and older are almost always prosecuted in criminal court. HB 462 would significantly reduce these prosecutions, especially if the juvenile has a Marietta criminal defense lawyer during the consideration process.
A 12-member commission is at the center of this process. This commission must determine if a 17-year-old should be tried as an adult and if the state should spend money on an adult criminal trial.
First, let’s look at the across-the-street provision. Marietta criminal defense lawyers sometimes use this slang term to refer to a criminal court referral for a juvenile offender. Apparently, wherever this phrase originated, the adult court was across the street from the juvenile court. Aside from the obvious severity of the offense and criminal background factors, some others include the child’s:
- Living environment,
- Behavioral and neurological background,
- Peer influences,
- Ethnicity, and
- Psychological background.
Cost is a consideration as well. Many adult criminal trials cost more than $40,000. That’s not an eye-popping figure, but the state cannot find $40k between the sofa cushions, and juvenile crime prosecutions are much less expensive.
A Marietta criminal defense attorney could argue before the commission that, based on the relevant factors, a criminal trial is not in the best interests of society. An attorney could make a similar argument concerning the cost. In other words, s/he might be a bad kid, but s/he is not bad enough to take money away from public schools or other programs.
Juvenile crime laws and trends are changing. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal law attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. Virtual, home, and jail visits are available.