Proposed increased age to charge teens as adults might be costly

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver told members of the House's Juvenile Justice Committee that more youth detention centers may need to be built if 17-year-olds are charged as juveniles. Screen grab of Georgia House online streaming

Lifting the age when teenagers are charged as an adult to 18 from 17 could require spending $200 million to build new detention centers to accommodate the shift, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and representatives of law enforcement associations joined the man who oversees Georgia’s juvenile incarceration to describe to lawmakers the potential costs and other challenges in changing the law to send 17-year-olds through the juvenile justice system instead of adult courts. The House Juvenile Justice Committee is expected to vote this year on a Raise the Age bill.

Criminal justice reform advocates say keeping more 17-year-olds out of state prisons not only wipes away a public criminal record, it also puts them in a setting where they’re less likely to have criminal behavior reinforced and then be arrested again.

However, professional law enforcement associations railed against the legislation at Thursday’s hearing as a dangerous policy. Placing 17-year-olds into the same facilities as juveniles could place the younger inmates at a higher risk for assaults, according to the Georgia Sheriff’s Association’s Executive Director Terry Norris.

“What we saw on violent incidents in the (criminal justice) system, the 17-year-olds are more violent than any other age groups,” Norris said.

And he said, transporting newly classified juveniles from county lockups to the nearest youth detention center will create a substantial burden in some Georgia counties where the facilities are far apart. A Camden County Sheriff’s deputy, for example, would travel 278 miles round trip to take the 17-year-old to the nearest youth detention center, according to a report  Norris distributed.

In Georgia, raising the age could come at a $200 million cost to build four new detention centers in heavily populated areas to accommodate more offenders, said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver.

That’s even despite Georgia’s youth detention centers averaging as much as 70% capacity, said Oliver, who also noted that his estimate is far from exact since existing county statistics don’t show how long each offender would stay in a youth facility.

For instance, the majority of the roughly 500 17-year-olds arrested in Cobb County in 2018 were picked up for misdemeanors.

“I think the ultimate goal, you guys correct me if I’m wrong, is for this bill is to service these 17-year-olds in the community, but sometimes they may have to come into our facility to see what their needs are, see what services they need and then transfer back,” Oliver said.

Ensuring enough resources are shifted to an already financially strapped juvenile court system was a common refrain at Thursday’s meeting. Judges and heads of attorney associations said more work is needed to find how much it might cost to implement the proposal.

The Georgia Public Defenders Association estimated they’d need about $750,000 to hire and train nine new assistant public defenders to accommodate the change. An additional $300,000 for six new employees would be needed in the Dawson and Hall County circuit, according to the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges.

Also, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association estimates counties would pay $1.6 million more to transport 17-year-olds to juvenile detention centers and courts.

The increased caseload would double in places like the Macon Judicial Circuit, which now has 230 juvenile cases, said Peter Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.

“That’s kind of the burden that y’all have now is the juvenile court system is so diverse in this day, that it’s very difficult to (figure out) the cost of what it would cost to transition when you raise the age,” Skandalakis said.

However, in many instances, the additional costs taken on by juvenile courts might be a wash when money is no longer needed in adult courts with workloads that would drop after the change.

“We need to get fingers on what will be the savings on our adult system for our courts, judges, facilities and things like that,” said Rep. Dexter Sharper, a Valdosta Democrat.

House Bill 440 sponsor, Rep. Mandi Ballinger, said she plans to have a vote on the legislation before the session ends.

“We’re trying to find some ways to address some nags,” the Canton Republican said following Thursday’s meeting. “And also addressing the concerns our juvenile court judges have had as far resources and additional cases.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.