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Most 17-year-olds offenders in Georgia would not face adult court per House bill

ATLANTA — Youth offenders in Georgia would need to be at least 18-years old to be tried in adult court for all except the most serious violent crimes under a bill filed in the 2020 legislative session.

Georgia is one of three states that try 17-year-olds as adults for felony charges in criminal court. The minimum age would be raised to 18 years under House Bill 440, sponsored by Rep. Mandi Ballinger, D-Canton.

Supporters say 17-year-old offenders should not be jailed with violent adults, both for their own physical safety and to remove them from constant contact with criminal behavior. Skeptics worry the change could let more crime-prone juveniles go free.

Teenagers would still be tried as adults for violent crimes like murder and rape under the bill.

Most 17-year-olds in Georgia are sent to adult prison for felony theft, drug and assault crimes, said Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate with the nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project. Keeping them out of the adult justice system would help reduce the chances they commit more crimes as an adult.

“We have the opportunity to shape their futures…by providing them with the services they need even when they mess up,” Rovner said at a House Juvenile Justice Committee meeting Tuesday.

The number of teenagers arrested in Georgia has fallen sharply over the past decade, Rovner said. He presented figures showing roughly 30% of the the total 24,037 juveniles arrested in Georgia in 2017 were aged 17.

Despite the decline, some lawmakers want a deeper dive on how much it would cost juvenile courts and detention centers to take on 17-year-olds before moving forward on the bill.

“I think there’s universal agreement that this is the right thing to do,” said Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock. “We just need to look at it more so we don’t have fiscal impacts that we didn’t consider.”

The bill stalled in last year’s legislative session. Ballinger chairs the House Juvenile Justice Committee where the bill needs approval to reach the full House.