Treating Youthful Offenders As Adults In Georgia

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It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. When children reach their “teen” years, and even before, trouble can start. However, in Georgia, the State can treat children as adults depending on a variety of circumstances.

In Georgia, the onset of criminal responsibility begins when one reaches the age of 13. OCGA 16-3-1 provides: A person shall not be considered or found guilty of a crime unless he has attained the age of 13 years at the time of the act, omission, or negligence constituting the crime. Minimum age is a defense to criminal prosecution. Technically, a person below 13 years old CANNOT commit a crime in Georgia because he lacks “criminal intent.” A 13-year-old child can do “criminal act” but it will be not be considered a crime. His actions however can be considered “civil tort” for which he and his parents or legal guardians can be made responsible.

Georgia expects 13-year-olds to obey State penal laws to the letter. Ignorance of the law is no longer an excuse for Georgia teenagers. Sanctions are imposed to youthful offenders in trouble with the law not to punish them but to rehabilitate them. Sanctions are considered reformative instead of punitive. Sanctions are imposed to protect youthful offenders from hurting themselves and from getting into trouble with the society. Sanctions aim to teach youthful offenders how to be accountable for their actions. In line with these principles, youthful offenders are not considered “arrested” but “taken into custody” if invited for questioning by law enforcement officers. Later in their career and professional employment applications, youth offenders can legally declare that they have never been arrested.

Procedures in Georgia Juvenile Justice System

  1. Intake. Within 72 hours from taking a child into custody for alleged violation of law, the intake officer must decide whether or not there is enough evidence to support the charges. If evidence is not enough, the child must be released immediately. If there is enough evidence, the intake officer will determine whether to detain the child until a detention hearing is held. This is to prevent him from running away and hurting himself.
  2. Detention Hearing. The judge must decide whether it is for the best interest of the child in trouble with the law to proceed to formal hearing. If the judge thinks that formal hearing is needed, a formal petition charging the child with delinquent acts must be filed. (A delinquent act is an act committed by a child designated a crime by the laws of Georgia, or by the laws of another state if the act occurred in that state, under federal laws, or by local ordinance, and the act is not an offense applicable only to a child or a juvenile traffic offense. OCGA § 15-11-2 (19)). Petition is usually signed by arresting police officers or private citizen-complainants. The other issue to be decided during the detention hearing is whether to detain the child until a formal hearing. If the judge decided to detain the child until formal hearing, a bail may be required for temporary release of the youthful offender.

The place of detention depends on the offense. Those charged with delinquent acts may be detained in Regional Youth Detention Centers run by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Those charged with offenses exclusively handled by the Superior Courts may be detained in youth confinement units dedicated for youth offenders inside adult facilities.

  1. Informal Adjustment. This is similar to pretrial diversion programs generally offered by the State to first offenders of minor delinquent acts. The youthful offender must admit committing the delinquent act and be willing to undergo programs or community service within certain period of time. Examples of programs usually imposed include alcohol awareness, drug awareness, counseling, anger management, and shoplifting awareness.
  2. Formal Hearing. Formal hearing is further divided into two stages:

Adjudicatory Hearing. This stage involves a full-blown trial to prove the merits of the Complaint/Petition lodged by the prosecution against the youthful offender. This is similar to a trial of an adult offender. There are however major differences. There is no right to jury. It is not unusual that the judge will be the sole trier of facts. The public and the press are allowed inside the courtroom only with the permission of trial judge. In determining whether to open the proceeding to the public, the judge weighs the privacy of the youthful offender and the benefit to the community. The rules of evidence are likewise set by the judge in each individual case instead of following strict rules of evidence. The trial can be either in Juvenile Court or in Superior Court depending on the nature of the offense (see below).

Dispositional Hearing. This proceeding is similar to the sentencing hearing. It is conducted in order to determine the proper sanctions to be imposed to the youthful offender if found guilty of violation of the penal laws. In determining proper sanctions, the court may consider the investigation conducted by a court social service worker. Consideration may also include the nature of the charge, the home and school environment of the offender, and whether offender is a repeat offender.

Juvenile Court or Superior Court

Youth offenders may be tried before Juvenile Courts or Superior Courts depending on the offense involved. Juvenile court has jurisdiction over offenses alleged to have been committed prior to a youthful offender’s 17th birthday. After 17, the youth is charged in a regular court. Juvenile court can retain jurisdiction over the youthful offender until age 21 provided the offense alleged to have been committed occurred before the offender turned 17.OCGA 15-11-2(10).

There are two ways a juvenile can be prosecuted as adult before Superior Courts:

  1. Juvenile Court may transfer a juvenile case to Superior Court if a child was: a) at least 15 years of age at the time of the commission of the offense and committed an act which would be a felony if committed by an adult, or b) 13 or 14 years of age and either committed an act for which the punishment is loss of life or confinement for life in a penal institution or committed aggravated battery resulting in serious bodily injury to a victim. In addition to age requirements, the court or the prosecution must show that there exist a probable cause that a child committed the alleged offense, and that such child is not committable to an institution for developmentally disabled or mentally ill. OCGA §15-11-561(a); and
  2. Superior Court has exclusive original jurisdiction over trial of any child aged 13 to 17 alleged to have committed murder, murder in the second degree, voluntary manslaughter, rape, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sexual battery, or armed robbery committed with a firearm. The prosecution may however opt to reverse transfer these cases to Juvenile court. OCGA §15-11-560.

In transferring cases from Juvenile Courts to Superior Court, the following criteria must be considered: age of the child offender, seriousness of the alleged offense, protection of the community, whether violence, aggression, or premeditation is involved, impact on the alleged victim, culpability or level of planning and participation of the offender, repetitive pattern of the offense, record or history of the offender, sophistication and maturity of the offender, program and facilities available to the courts, and whether or not the offender can benefit from the treatment or rehabilitative programs available to the Juvenile court.

Youthful Offender’s Rights

The rights afforded by the Constitution is not lost by virtue of the tender age of the offender. The Constitutional rights of youthful offenders must be observed and respected by any law enforcement officers even if the offenders are charged as adults. Juvenile offenders have the right to remain silent during custodial investigation. They must be appraised of their Miranda rights. They must be informed of the nature of the accusation against them. They have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them. They have a right to have an attorney present if requested. They have the right against self-incrimination. The validity of any waiver of such rights must be determined by several factors such as the age, education, knowledge of the nature of the charge, confinement, and methods used by the law enforcement agents in obtaining waiver.

Rehabilitation and Reformative Programs

Any youthful offender convicted of a felony and sentenced as an adult to a certain term of imprisonment shall be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). DJJ is considered Georgia’s 181st school district. Over 52,000 youth are served annually by the Department, including those who are placed on probation, sentenced to short-term incarceration, jointly shared with local counties, or those solely committed to DJJ by Juvenile Courts.

The youthful offender serves the sentence in facilities such as Regional Youth Development Centers and Youth Development Campuses until such time when the he reaches 17 years of age. As the offender’s 17th birthday approaches, the court usually holds a status conference to reevaluate the offender’s sentence. The court may hear testimony regarding offender’s behaviors, school grades, and rule violation or compliance records. The Superior Court determines the progress of the offender in departmental programs and determines whether he shall be transferred to the Department of Correction to serve the remainder of the sentence, placed on probation, or have his or her sentence reduced.OCGA 17-10-14, 49-4A-9.

When Do Kids Grow Up?

More and more states are treating teenagers as adults for all criminal charges. Missouri treats 17-year-olds as adults for all criminal charges, from serious felonies like murder to lower-level offenses such as traffic violations. North Carolina and New York treat 16-year-olds as adults for all criminal issues. As shown above, Georgia treats youthful offenders as adults only in cases enumerated in OCGA §15-11-560 and OCGA §15-11-561(a). Moreover, the procedures and rules of evidence are flexible in order to make sure that youthful offenders are rehabilitated and reformed.

As expected, not everyone is satisfied on how youthful offenders are treated. Some do not approve treating juveniles like adults when it comes to methods of prosecution and service of sentence. They ask for more understanding of the developing mind of teenagers. For them, kids and kids and adults are adults and no one should put them in the same category when it comes to prosecution. Questions however remain: WHEN do kids BECOME adults? WHEN can they LEARN their lessons?

If your kids or your loved ones are in trouble with the law, you need a lawyer who knows the process in Juvenile Courts and Superior Courts. If you have questions regarding treatment of youthful offenders as adults don’t hesitate to call Bixon Law at 404-551-5684.


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