ATLANTA — Criminal defense attorney and author J. Tom Morgan said his phone has rumbled late in the night with texts from minors seeking legal advice about police at the door. Today the high-profile lawyer specializes in defending young people, and, as a local district attorney in the past, prosecuted hundreds of people for crimes against children.
In an upcoming article in the State Bar of Georgia’s journal, he argues that kids’ behavior hasn’t changed, but the consequences have.
“Its not what’s happened in the last 30 years that kids are worse, it’s what we’ve done in our legal system,” he said. Things like zero tolerance, raising the drinking age and criminalizing consensual sex between teens under child abuse laws have put kids in the crosshairs of the police.
Last year alone, he spoke at more than 100 events explaining to kids and adults the facts in his book “Ignorance is No Defense, A Teenager’s Guide to Georgia Law.”
JJIE talked to Morgan after he gave a presentation to some 150 parents at a private school in Atlanta on Nov. 29.
Q: You talked about zero tolerance rules about weapons on campus in Georgia and some of the absurd outcomes, like prosecuting Boy Scouts for knives. What kind of policy would work better?
A: To give discretion to the school administrator over the intent of the kid. Zero tolerance did away with intent. Was the kid intending to take a weapon to harm someone? Or even intending to take a weapon to school? So many of these kids, especially with knives, it’s an accidental discovery, it’s in the car, it was not meant to be malevolent.
Q: You praised restorative justice. Why?
A: First, I think it is what makes the biggest impression on the perpetrator, is to go back to the victim and say, “I’m sorry” and to make the victim whole. I think it’s also cheaper. I think restorative justice, when judges look at it, they accomplish more in little time.
Q: Georgia is only one of 10 states that treat all 17-year-olds as adults [in criminal cases]. What are the prospects of raising that?
A: None. It is because it’s not high on the agenda of the Legislature and most parents don’t even understand that it’s different. I can tell you most parents here didn’t know 17-year-olds are adults under the law.
Q: You talked about some of Georgia’s laws around sex crimes and young people getting in legal trouble for consensual sex. How would you write policies around young people and sex?
A: The “Romeo and Juliet” exception would, just as it is in North Carolina, would decriminalize it … in Georgia we went from felony to misdemeanor but it’s still a crime.
Q: You touched on young peoples’ constitutional rights. If you were talking to kids all over the country, what would you advise them about their rights?
A: To know that you always have the right to remain silent. So many kids talk their way into trouble, not out of trouble. And that before you answer, in most cases, a law enforcement officer’s questions you should have the advice of an attorney.