About 150 youth turned out Wednesday evening for a teen forum at the University of North Georgia’s Oakwood campus, the first in what the Department of Juvenile Justice hopes will be one of many across the state.
A panel of experts in criminal justice answered questions and explained concepts, some of which surprised attendees.
“When you take hope from a child, hope from an adult, you’re robbing them of their dignity,” DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles said in opening, speaking to the department’s reform efforts to reduce incarceration and rehabilitate offenders. “We’re not decreasing the safety as it relates to enforcement, but we need to concentrate on getting help for our youth.”
While the aim of recent juvenile justice reforms is to help offenders, Hall County Juvenile Judge Mary Carden warned of some of the unerasable long-term consequences of having a record.
“If you’re charged in Superior Court, they can have access to your juvenile record, and you won’t have that first offender status,” she said.
Furthermore, employment opportunities such as the military, or a government job like the FBI and CIA, can be permanently inaccessible to a person with a juvenile record.
“Life is that way. Almost everything you do has an effect,” Carden said.
Gainesville Police Department Maj. Paul Sherman talked about how to best handle run-ins with law enforcement.
The first thing is “don’t run,” he said to laughter, adding, “honesty is always the best policy.”
In what many teens said was the most enlightening portion of the forum, Judge Cliff Jolliff explained the age at which teens in Georgia can be tried as adult — 17 for all charges. But if the charge is one of the “seven deadly sin charges,” that age becomes 13.
“In our state, until you’re 16, you don’t have the right to say yes to sex. So what if you do?” he posed.
The answer, possibly, is an aggravated child molestation charge, aggravated sodomy or aggravated sexual battery, and some of those charges carry a minimum sentence of 25 years, he said to gasps.
“You all don’t have a concept of that. That’s what hurts my heart, when it happens to someone. You don’t have a concept of what it’s like to stay in jail for 25 years because you haven’t lived that long,” he said. “Think about this, talk about this. ...It’s too late after it happens.”
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch spoke to the stark reality of teens being tried as adults, something he’s seen in his experience as a homicide investigator.
“I have actually seen cases where we’ve had juveniles charged as adults, many, many times. I worked homicide cases for over 20 years, and back in 1991 we had a 14-year-old girl who murdered her aunt. And she is in prison to this very day,” he recalled.
Last to speak was Chase Thomas, who wound up in the juvenile system after a tumultuous upbringing led to some poor choices, including drugs.
“I ended up getting some pretty heavy judge charges. I actually got sentenced by Judge Carden. Never thought I’d be right here,” he said to laughs, seated next to Carden. “Talk about awkward.”
Now, after serving a juvenile sentence, Thomas is employed, going to school, married and expecting a child in late January.
Jakeia Wilson, 18, who came with a group from New Salem Baptist Church in Jefferson, said she was touched by Thomas’ story.
“It was sad, but looking around you can really see things like that going on. It happens when people really don’t know if they have any help, and they need help, but there’s just not any help around,” she said.
Some of the information produced laughs — not many expected to hear a public official talk frankly about sex — but all of the information was ultimately serious advice.
Corey Cantrell, 15, a rising sophomore at Gainesville High School, said he would attend another forum if organized.
“It was a good program, but everything they told me I know, except the Seven Deadly Sin thing. I didn’t know anything about that,” he said.
Cheek said, ultimately, it falls on each child individually to make the choices to keep them out of trouble.
“Life is full of choices, but with those choices come consequences. If you make those positive choices, you don’t have to worry about seeing these people on the panel,” she said.