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House bill would raise age for adult crimes to 18 in Georgia

ATLANTA — The age for charging most people with adult crimes would rise from 17 to 18 in Georgia under a bill moving forward in the state House. 

The House Juvenile Justice Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to approve House Bill 272, sending it to the full House for more debate.

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican, has been pushing the idea for years. She cites testimony from experts that teen brains are still developing to full adulthood and lack the impulse control that older people usually develop.

"It's not because they can't make good decisions," Ballinger said. "It's just because they don't make good decisions sometimes."

Advocates say that means 17-year-olds should go before juvenile courts, where judges can decide their cases with an eye toward promoting positive growth and change without giving them a permanent criminal record — instead of adult court, which is more focused on punishment.

Such a change also would mean parents have to be notified of an arrest and could be present when teens are questioned by police.

People who are 17 would still be charged as adults for certain violent crimes including murder, rape, child molestation and armed robbery with a gun — as teens 13 to 16 already are in Georgia. However, as with younger children, prosecutors could decide to send charges down to juvenile court.

Georgia is one of the last three states, along with Texas and Wisconsin, to cap juvenile court jurisdiction at age 16, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven other states have raised the age to 17 in the last decade and a half, with Missouri and Michigan doing so this year. In 2020, Vermont became the first state to include 18-year-olds in juvenile court jurisdiction.

The movement has been so successful nationwide that the Campaign for Youth Justice, which advocated for fewer adult prosecutions of juveniles nationwide, disbanded last year as it declared victory, saying 70% fewer people younger than 18 were being prosecuted as adults.

"If other states can do it, Georgia can," Ballinger said.

There are still opponents in Georgia, though. Terry Norris, the executive director of the Georgia Sheriff's Association, said as many as 5,000 17-year-olds are arrested in Georgia in a typical year, with half charged with felonies.

"This age group is an age group that commits a lot of crime," Norris said.

Ballinger, though, cited statistics that showed that more than 200 17-year-olds are arrested each year in only seven Georgia counties. In three-quarters of the state's 159 counties, fewer than 50 17-year-olds are arrested each year.

"That's less than one a week," Ballinger said.

Norris said that if lawmakers do pass the bill, sheriffs want to delay the implementation date past Ballinger's proposal of Jan. 1, 2022. Others have voiced concerns about making sure juvenile courts and others have enough resources to handle the change.

Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver told House members last year that the state would need four new juvenile centers to house 17-year-olds. However, advocates questioned that claim, noting the department is already closing long-term detention centers because fewer youth are under its care, and that arrests and resulting costs have gone down in states that have started directing 17-year-olds to juvenile court.

The bill sets up an implementation panel to try to work through those and other issues.

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