Georgia may raise the age for filing adult criminal charges against most people from 17 to 18, but it’s likely to happen a year later than some had hoped.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 5-3 to pass House Bill 272, sending it to the Senate for more debate.
Committee members amended the bill to make it take effect beginning in 2023, instead of 2022, as Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger of Canton had proposed. The committee agreed to the delay after law enforcement agencies and the Department of Juvenile Justice warned they needed more money to transport, house and rehabilitate 17-year-olds.
Georgia is one of the last three states that charges all 17-year-olds as adults, along with Texas and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven other states have raised the age for adult charges in the last decade and a half, with Missouri and Michigan doing so this year.
Advocates say 17-year-olds should go before juvenile courts, where judges can decide cases while promoting growth without giving them a permanent criminal record.
"This is the right thing for 17-year-olds," said Ballinger. "We can argue about money."
The bill’s sponsor and the chair of the House Juvenile Justice Committee, Ballinger has been seeking the change for years and agreed to the delay to get closer to passing the bill into law.
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. Gang crimes also would bring adult charges for 17-year-olds, although not for younger children. Prosecutors could decide to send charges down to juvenile court.
More than 13,000 17-year-olds were arrested last year, according to state statistics. Of those, about 10,700 were charged with only misdemeanors.
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Experts say teen brains are still developing to full adulthood and they lack the impulse control that older people usually gain. Advocates say 17-year-olds should go before juvenile courts, where judges can decide cases while promoting growth without giving them a permanent criminal record.
"We believe it’s a pro-community bill that will save taxpayer dollars, we believe it’s pro-law enforcement bill that will keep people out of the criminal justice system, and we believe it’s a pro-recovery bill that would give young people the chance to get the medical attention they need," said Jeff Breedlove of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse.
Law enforcement groups didn’t directly oppose the plan on Wednesday, but warned that officers would be taken off the streets while driving juveniles to detention centers.
"Agencies sometimes have to carry people as far as three or four jurisdictions away," said Dwayne Orrick, assistant executive director of the Georgia Police Chiefs Association.
The Department of Juvenile Justice also said it might need more money and space to house 17-year-olds.
"The raise-the-age desired outcome is rehabilitation," said Deputy Juvenile Justice Commissioner Margaret Cawood. "A delayed phased implementation with thoughtful planning, assuring resources ... could assure that that happens."
Ballinger expressed confidence that the department would have enough room, noting that juvenile arrest rates have been falling and this might raise the number of juveniles in state facilities back to where it was in 2017.
"Is it impossible for us to say in 2021 we can’t do what we did in 2014," Ballinger said. "This is not around the moon. This is not too far a reach to say we can do this."
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