Some state lawmakers are asking for more discretion in the criminal prosecution and sentencing of teens.
In Georgia, children as young as 13 at the time of an offense can face decades in prison if charged as adults. Legislation sponsored by six Senate Democrats would allow cases against teens ages 13 to 17, who are accused of the most serious criminal offenses, to stay in juvenile courts.
The proposed law is not likely to pass in a legislature controlled by Republicans.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, who said he had not read the specific legislation, noted several juvenile justice reforms have already been passed, signed and enacted.
“The governor has done quite a bit of reform. I think that what’s done has been appropriate and I don’t see a need for change at this time,” Hawkins said. “At this point I think we should see how things develop with the changes we made last year before we start making more changes.”
If passed, the bill would eliminate automatic Superior Court jurisdiction over charges colloquially called the “seven deadly sins:” murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, armed robbery (if committed with a firearm), aggravated sexual battery, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sodomy.
Under the revised juvenile code, sexual offenses (except for rape) can be transferred to a juvenile court.
The policy was established in 1994 by SB440, and in 1995, SB441 set steep mandatory minimums of 10 years on the seven offenses. Subsequent laws have upped the minimum to 25 years on many such charges.
Experts say strict “tough-on-crime” laws were passed almost universally in the country during the 1990s, and 49 states and the District of Columbia enacted laws making it easier to try juveniles in adult court.
Chief Assistant Public Defender Nicki Vaughan, who is in charge of defending teens in the juvenile courts of Hall and Dawson counties, applauded the proposed legislation.
“Most parents, teachers and others who spend a lot of time with teenagers know that they are not little adults; kids are kids and should be treated that way,” she said.
If a juvenile judge did deem a case more fit for the adult system, he or she would have the authority to transfer it to Superior Court, Vaughan said.
But other criminal justice stakeholders have said in the past that measures to keep cases in juvenile court undermine victims’ rights.
District Attorney Lee Darragh, commenting on last year’s juvenile code reform, said juvenile court lacks the authority to substantially deter juvenile offenders, where offenders face a maximum sentence of five years.
But Vaughan said the juvenile courts are better staffed and equipped to treat, rehabilitate and supervise children.
“Most 13-to-16-year-old kids, the target population of the bill SB362, fit the mold that has been shown to respond positively to treatment and rehabilitation, as reflected by statistics and lower recidivism rates,” she said. “Research on brain development and the maturation process suggests that much of the poor judgment and bad decision-making that exists in adolescents is simply outgrown with aging.”
Prior to indictment, the Superior Court can exercise prosecutorial discretion on which court, if any, will handle the case.
In Hall County, there have been some cases recently of teens being charged as adults.
In November, a 13-year-old boy was indicted on rape and molestation charges and is set to appear before a Superior Court judge to enter a plea in March.
In October, 17-year-old Christopher Eggersdorf was sentenced to 15 years in prison and 25 years probation in Superior Court for his role in a fatal car accident that killed two people. Facing murder charges, he was offered a guilty plea to two counts of felony homicide by vehicle in the first degree.
His lawyer had asserted that Eggersdorf was indicted for murder in order to give Superior Court jurisdiction, rather than the juvenile court.
Senators have referred the proposed law to the Judiciary Committee.