For The Record

Bill to raise age of defendants assigned to juvenile courts passes Georgia House panel

By: - February 28, 2023 7:52 pm

Going through the juvenile system would grant eligible 17-year-old defendants more privacy than in state superior court – where records are usually available for public inspection – and place them in a more rehabilitation-focused setting. Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice photo

A House panel signed off on a bipartisan plan Tuesday to divert some 17-year-old defendants to the state’s juvenile court system, backing the bill over the objections of Georgia sheriffs. 

Georgia is currently one of three states where 17-year-olds accused of a crime are adjudicated alongside adults in state superior court. The bill’s sponsor, Canton Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger, has pushed to change that for several years now through her “raise the age” proposals. 

Ballinger’s proposal was voted out of the juvenile justice committee that she chairs a second time this year Tuesday as a key deadline quickly approaches. A bill must clear at least one chamber by this coming Monday to have the clearest shot at becoming law this year. 

The measure was sent back to her committee by the gatekeeping Rules Committee Tuesday morning so lawmakers could adopt a change that would give the state more time to pay for the costs to implement the policy. The new age cut-off rules would expire in 2030 if left unfunded. 

“The sheriffs are strongly opposed. We have some fundamental concerns,” Michael Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, told lawmakers Tuesday.

The group representing county sheriffs across the state has raised concerns about the cost, the potential strain more trips to regional juvenile detention centers would have on staffing and whether it’s even a good idea to mix older teens with younger children.

“I don’t know that we’re ever going to get over those ‘fundamental concerns’ of 17-year-olds are evil or they’re going to be a bad influence on 16-year-olds,” Ballinger said.

“Although how putting 17-year-olds with adult offenders in adult jails isn’t corrupting 17-year-olds who get arrested for open container, I don’t know how that’s not corrupting them. I’m at a bit of loss,” she said.

Ballinger has argued that science is on her side and proves that a 17-year-old’s brain is still developing and vulnerable to the kind of peer pressure an adult is better equipped to rebuff.

Sending eligible older teens through the juvenile court system would grant them more privacy and place them in a more rehabilitation-focused setting.

The bill would not apply to 17-year-olds who have committed a gang-related crime, who are not first-time offenders or who have committed the most serious offenses, like murder.

Ballinger’s bill now goes back to the Rules Committee, which decides which bills make it to the full chamber for a vote and where sheriffs are trying to head it off. A group of sheriffs sent a letter Tuesday to the Rules Committee chairman warning that the policy “is not practical for many reasons and will inevitably render Georgians less safe.”

But if the bill is passed, the association is asking for implementation to be pushed back a year to Jan. 1, 2026, to give the state more time to ramp up the bed and staffing capacity within the state Department of Juvenile Justice. 

The sheriffs also want to rename a proposed “implementation committee,” which would meet in the meantime to review the cost and plans to adapt the system to accommodate the 17-year-olds. They argue it should be called a “feasibility committee” or something that would indicate that adopting the policy is not a foregone conclusion.

Ballinger said the implementation committee’s role would be to ensure the infrastructure is in place for the Department of Juvenile Justice. The state will cover the cost to increase the capacity, although she argued the limitations included in the bill will likely keep the number of newly eligible 17-year-olds small.

“I don’t know how else to assure y’all that that’s going to be paid for by the state,” Ballinger said. “I think it says it pretty clearly in the bill.”


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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.