In the waning days of last legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly passed then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s final signature piece of legislation — cash bail reform. It was the last in a string of ambitious endeavors intended to modernize and improve Georgia’s notoriously problematic criminal justice policies.
But before reformers unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner, Georgia’s criminal justice system still badly needs attention — especially with regard to its treatment of youths. Indeed, Georgia is one of only four states that still automatically prosecutes and punishes minors in the adult justice system. But that may change soon.
Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, recently filed HB 440 to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility from 17 to 18. If passed, Georgia officials would no longer place 17-year-olds in the adult justice system wholesale. Rather, they would only treat youths as adults in cases involving particularly heinous circumstances. In most scenarios, then, 17-year-olds would enter the juvenile system, where they would still pay for their crimes but also receive the care that they need to grow into law-abiding adults.
The foolishness of punishing all 17-year-olds as adults, as Georgia presently does, is manifest. After all, if youths cannot be trusted with opening a checking account, getting their ears pierced or even voting, then why should they all be judged as adults? Clearly, they shouldn’t. Not surprisingly, the current policy’s results have been overwhelmingly negative.
When minors are housed in juvenile facilities, they often have access to support, counseling and other services specifically designed to help them learn from their mistakes and aid in their rehabilitation. But these services are limited in adult prisons where minors face many hazards and are housed alongside adults with long rap sheets.
This places adolescents who are in adult prisons at considerable risk of incurring both psychological and physical harm, which causes lasting trauma. Youths housed in adult facilities are far more frequently the target of sexual violence than adults in prison. In fact, while minors represent around 1 percent of the population in adult prisons, they are the recipients of roughly 21 percent of the sexual abuse that occurs. What’s more, they are also much more likely to commit suicide than youths who remain in juvenile facilities.
When minors in adult prisons are eventually released, they are saddled with an adult criminal record that in most cases will follow them for the rest of their lives. This not only limits their rights and privileges, it prevents many from ever obtaining a decent job which, in turn, can encourage them to return to crime. In fact, after languishing in adult facilities for the prescribed period, minors are 34-77 percent more likely to recidivate once they are released — worsening public safety. Yet if these youths had been charged and sentenced as minors, their juvenile records would likely be permanently sealed — making it easier for them to move on from their mistakes and re-integrate into society after their release.
While the state of Georgia has arbitrarily declared that 17-year-olds are adults in criminal proceedings, science suggests that minors shouldn’t be treated as adults or punished with the same severity. This is because our brains continue to develop after our 17th birthdays. The fact that adolescents are still cognitively maturing at 17 contributes to their propensity to act rashly and aggressively, which may land them in the justice system in the first place. But the tendency to engage in these behaviors slowly dissipates as minors grow older and understand the consequences of their actions. This means that juveniles can learn how to turn their lives around by the time they are adults — as long as they receive the proper care and support.
Raising the age of criminal responsibility doesn’t mean that youths will not be brought to justice or that they will be prohibited from being prosecuted as adults; other methods exist that permit minors to be judged as adults on a case-by-case basis. Even so, the overwhelming majority of youths who are incarcerated will be released by the time they are 25 years old. Thus, it is critical that they are prepared to be productive members of society when they are freed.
The current law works against this goal. Indeed, treating all 17-year-olds the same and forcing them into the adult system is detrimental to their well-being, not to mention public safety. This is why Georgia ought to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility.