SB 292: Rethinking 17 vs. 18

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What is Georgia’s definition of a “child” when it comes to crime?

The issue came up Monday at a hearing of the state senate’s Juvenile Code Re-write Subcommittee, which is dealing with a proposed new juvenile code expected to be introduced during the next legislative session.

Georgia law says a child who is the victim of abuse or neglect becomes an adult at 18.  Deprivation cases are handled in Juvenile Court.

The same person, if accused of an act of delinquency, is considered an adult at 17.  The case goes to adult court.

Now a suggestion is on the table to split the issue by raising the age to 18 in misdemeanor cases but leaving it at 17 for felonies. That means a 17-year-old would be tried in juvenile court on a misdemeanor charge but in superior court for a felony.

Two states—Illinois and Mississippi—recently changed their laws on juveniles to make a distinction between felonies and misdemeanors, according to Kirsten Widner, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Emory University’s Barton Child Law &  Policy Center. Georgia is one of about fifteen states with different ages for delinquency and deprivation, she told the subcommittee.

The age issue has been a hot topic of discussion at previous hearings. The current draft of the  new juvenile code leaves the law as it is, after a proposal to raise the age of delinquency to 18 met with strong opposition.

Much of the concern has been over practical matters, such as money. The state’s Department of Juvenile Justice estimated two years ago that sending all 17-year-olds to the juvenile system would increase the population of juvenile offenders by as much as 30 percent, at a cost of $83- to $124 million a year.  Rob Rosenbloom, representing the DJJ, spoke briefly at Monday’s hearing.   “The age of jurisdiction has a fiscal impact,” he said. Even if only 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors become part of the juvenile system, “there’s still a significant impact for making that decision,” he said.

Only two of six subcommittee members, Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), its chairman, and Sen. Robert Brown (D-Macon), attended Monday’s hearing, which had been scheduled to review some possible changes in the first five articles of the proposed new code.Hamrick was the primary sponsor of a version of the juvenile code introduced in April, 2009, as Senate Bill 292. That bill failed to make it through the legislative process by the end of the two-year term. It must be reintroduced in 2011.

The process of rewriting the state’s juvenile code began six years ago with a request from the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges. The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation. In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.

Kirsten Widner of the Barton Center said sending 17 year olds charged with misdemeanors to juvenile court is a “progressive idea” that JUSTGeorgia would support, but would also stand by leaving the law as it is.

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