ATLANTA — Some Republicans in the Georgia legislature are trying to push through a bill that would let 17-year-olds charged with most crimes be tried in juvenile court.
Right now, 17-year-olds are automatically considered adults in the eyes of the law.
State officials said 6,500 17-year-olds are charged with crimes as adults every year in Georgia. Suspects 16 and younger are charged in juvenile courts. Advocates said 17-year-olds should also face criminal charges in juvenile courts.
"The concept in juvenile court is rehabilitation. The concept in adult court is more retribution," said Greg Price, a juvenile court judge in Floyd County.
Polly McKinney of Voices for Georgia Children is among those arguing 17 is too young for adult justice.
"The brain continues to develop until a kid is about 25 years old," McKinney said. "(It's) why, historically, people make jokes about teenage behavior – and kids are a little bit unpredictable. That’s because their brains are developing."
The bill would still give prosecutors leeway to try 17-year-olds and even younger teens for a list of serious crimes in adult court, including murder, rape aggravated assault, and aggravated child molestation.
In a state that has long embraced toughness against criminals – the bill’s sponsor said sending thousands of now-adult cases to juvenile court can be a tough sell.
"There’s just a lot of inertia in government. This is a significant change in our policy," said state Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton), chairman of the House Juvenile Justice Committee.
But Ballinger thinks it would advance the cause of guiding 17-year-olds away from criminal tendencies.
"Recidivism actually decreases significantly over time if they’re adjudicated in juvenile court," she said.
Advocates said Georgia is one of three states - including Wisconsin and Texas - that still routinely send 17-year-olds into the adult court system. The rest do it at 18.