Juvenile Justice System in Georgia
What is the Juvenile Justice System?
The juvenile justice system in Georgia exists to deal with alleged criminal acts committed by persons 13-16 years of age. By design, the process serves to promote rehabilitation over punishment, and protect minors from the harsh realities of the adult justice system.
What is a juvenile as it relates to prosecution? Per Georgia Code, specifically OCGA 16-3-1, 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.1
An individual less than 13 years of age is not subject to criminal prosecution. However, actions may be taken by the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services to investigate the child’s family and environment.
Juveniles Prosecuted as an Adult
In certain criminal cases, juveniles may be prosecuted as adults. This can happen when the nature of the alleged crime(s) is deemed to be highly heinous, such as murder, rape, armed robbery, etc. If a juvenile is to be tried as an adult, the case will be reassigned to a State Superior Court.
There are three court actions that are used to transfer a juvenile’s case into an adult court. These three actions are judicial waiver, statutory exclusion, and direct file.
Where Parents and the Courts Agree
Obviously, minors who run afoul of the law are a problem for parents, guardians, law enforcement, and the justice system. The common point for agreement is that all parties want minors to never find themselves in legal peril. For parents and guardians, minors charged with crimes create untold stress and a financial burden. For law enforcement and the justice system, minors charged with crimes consume valuable time, assets, and the cost associated with probation and/or detention.
Juvenile defense lawyers act to have charges dismissed, reduced to lesser charges, or represent the accused in court to manage other facets of the juvenile justice system. In cases that go to court, the juvenile defense lawyer will fight for the best possible outcome.
Juveniles without proper representation are far more likely to face stiffer sentences for charges and probation violations. Arguments exist that minors held in detention may begin to identify as “being a criminal”, thus drifting into a troubled life. The Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, published n 2017, included this alarming statement, “More than half the youth in the system were readjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of their release, a rate that had held steady since 2003. For those released from secure youth development campuses, the recidivism rate was even higher – an alarming 65 percent.”2.
Juveniles who are in legal trouble need an experienced defense lawyer to protect their potential for having a good life.
A Quick History of Georgia Juvenile Justice Laws
In 1971 Georgia enacted a Juvenile Code to establish a juvenile justice and corrections process. In 1973, the Code was amended with the intent to achieve five core objectives. These objectives are:
- Redefine the term “Child” to set Juvenile court jurisdiction
- Realign jurisdictional limits of Juvenile and Superior Courts
- Clarify procedures for mentally challenged minors
- Restrict publication of the names of juvenile offenders
- Provide for referrals by a Superior Court to a Juvenile Court
Subsequent changes to juvenile courts and prosecution processes have further improved how Georgia deals with juvenile offenders. In 2013, the Georgia Bar published an article which stated, “Technical corrections to a bill more than 200 pages long are to be expected and are anticipated to be introduced in the 2014 legislative session. Even when those corrections are made, implementation issues will take time to be sorted out and new practices will take some time to become familiar practices. Nevertheless, much progress has been made on behalf of the citizens of Georgia”3
More recent changes improve the roles and authorities of lawyers, prosecutors, parents, guardians and minor children. A Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform has paid particular attention to ways to better deal with first-time and low-risk offenders. Specifically, the Council has sought alternatives to detention and community intervention programming.
The Intake Processes
Anytime a youth is taken into custody they will be formally processed into the system (intake). This includes ensuring provisions for their general care, welfare, and protection. In matters of criminal conduct, this process may include the involvement of medical personnel, police, counselors, and lawyers.
The intake process starts with the minor being assigned to a juvenile court intake officer. The intake officer will investigate the charges to arrive at two critical decisions within three days. The intake officer must first determine there is adequate evidence to support charges for alleged crimes. If the determination is “no” the officer will drop the case. If the determination is “yes”, the officer will make a decision on whether or not to hold the minor in custody pending a preliminary hearing.
Common Reasons For Pre-Hearing Detention
There is an unlimited number of reasons a decision may be made to hold a minor in custody prior to a preliminary hearing. Some common reasons for detaining a minor include:
- is the minor a threat to themselves or others?
- is the minor at-risk of harm if they are not held?
- does the minor have a safe place to live?
- does the minor have prior criminal problems?
- is the minor likely to cause trouble if released?
What Happens When a Minor Is Held
If the officer makes a determination to not release a child there are steps that must be followed. Firstly, the parents/guardians must be immediately notified. A dentention hearing must be scheduled and held within 72 hours of the decision. At the hearing, the presiding judge will make a decison to release the minor or continue the detention pending further prosecutorial action.
Where Are Juveniles Held?
By law, status offenders may not be kept at a detention facility for more than 72 hours. A Superior Court can mandate that a juvenile accused of highly egregious crimes be held in an adult facility. Non-delinquent juveniles are transported to a shelter-care facility. In some situations a minor may be sent to a group home or placed in foster-care.
Being released from detention does not mean charges are dismissed. Your criminal defense lawyer can explain this to you in more detail.
The Georgia Juvenile Court Process
The Georgia Legal Aid website is an excellent resource for information on the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia. Their webiste offers the following information on the court process:
Chronology of a Juvenile Court Case
If an alleged delinquent child is arrested and delivered to a secure residential facility or non-secure residential facility or foster care facility designated by the court, the juvenile court intake officer shall immediately administer a standardized detention assessment and determine if such child should be detained and release such child unless it appears that his or her detention is warranted pending adjudication. This tool is designed to analyze the child’s risk to public safety and the likelihood that the child will appear before the court if released, and is a new feature of the code. See- O.C.G.A. § 15-11-505. At that time, the juvenile is either taken into restrictive custody or released to a parent or guardian and given notice of the time and place of his or her detention hearing. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-506.
The Detention Hearing
The detention hearing is a child’s first appearance before the juvenile court. The new code requires that such a hearing be held no more than two business days after a child is taken into custody if the child was taken into custody without a warrant, and within five business days if the child was taken into custody pursuant to a warrant. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-472.
In addition to clarifying the time requirements of the detention hearing, the new code also establishes new guidelines regarding pre-adjudication detention of juveniles alleged delinquent. Pursuant to this, restraint on an alleged delinquent child “will only be imposed when there is probable cause to believe that such child committed the act of which he or she is accused, that there is clear and convincing evidence that such child’s freedom should be restrained, that no less restrictive alternatives will suffice.” See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-506.
Further, the court will inform the juvenile of the contents or the delinquency petition, the nature of the proceedings, the right to make an application for bail, the possible consequences of the proceedings, and the child’s due process rights during the proceedings. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-506.
The Adjudication Hearing
If an alleged delinquent child is in detention, the adjudication hearing shall be scheduled to be held no later than ten days after the filing of the delinquency petition. If a child is not in detention, the hearing shall be scheduled to be held no later than 60 days after the filing of such petition. At the adjudication hearing, the child must either admit to the charges or deny the charges. If the child denies the charges, the court shall hear evidence on the petition. The burden of proof is on the prosecuting attorney, and the state must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-580.
The Disposition Hearing
The disposition hearing may occur directly after the adjudication hearing, or up to 30 days afterwards. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether a child adjudicated delinquent is in need of treatment, and if so, what treatment is appropriate given the juvenile court’s goal of rehabilitation. Under the code, the Court is required to “enter the least restrictive disposition order appropriate in view of the seriousness of the delinquent act, such child’s culpability as indicated by the circumstances of the particular case, the age of such child, such child’s prior record, and such child’s strengths and needs.” The Court may order the child to receive counseling, obtain a diploma or GED, pay restitution, complete community service, or complete any other requirements deemed appropriate given the juvenile’s unique circumstances. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-601. Dispositions for more serious crimes are discussed below:
One of the most significant departures from the previous code lies in the adjudication and disposition of designated felony cases. The previous code’s designated felony provisions applied the same penalty range for nearly 30 offenses that vary widely in severity, from kidnapping and arson to smash-and-grab burglary, and required a minimum of one year in restrictive custody, regardless of the risk of recidivism. The new code breaks these offenses down into Class A and Class B felonies, with Class A being more severe. The new code eliminates the mandatory minimum sentence of confinement for both classes of designated felonies (with some limited exceptions), and establishes new maximum sentences. See – The Special Council On Criminal Justice Reform For Georgians, Report Of The Special Council On Criminal Justice Reform For Georgians, 2017.
For Class A designated felonies, the maximum total period of confinement is 60 months; the maximum period of commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice is 60 months. Twelve months of intensive supervision are required following the period of confinement. Juveniles in confinement for Class A designated felonies must generally serve their time in a YDC unless there is some compelling reason for placement elsewhere. At disposition, the court is required to include risk level as a finding of fact at disposition; if the juvenile is deemed low risk, the court must explain why restrictive custody is required. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-602. The court must take into account factors such as the age and maturity of the child, the needs and best interests of the child, the record, background, and risk level of the child, the nature and circumstances of the offense, the need for protection of the community, and the age and physical condition of the victim. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-602.
For Class B designated felonies, the maximum total period of confinement is 18 months, and the juvenile may be committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice for up to 36 months. Six months of intensive supervision are required following the period of confinement. The judge must make a similar finding of fact regarding risk level for class B designated felony cases as for Class A cases. Medium and high-risk juveniles must serve half of their disposition in a YDC, then may be transitioned to a less secure residential facility. If a juvenile is deemed low-risk, a rebuttable presumption arises that restrictive custody is not required. A court must make a finding of fact as to why restrictive custody is required for restrictive custody to be ordered by the court. These juveniles may serve their sentences in a staff-secure or non-secure residential facility.
Juveniles Charged with Serious Crimes: When a Juvenile Case Can Be Sent to Superior Court: One significant feature of the previous juvenile code that lawmakers elected to retain under the revised code dealswith jurisdiction of juveniles charged serious crimes. Under the controversial 1994 law known as SB 440, for certain enumerated offenses (known as the “seven deadly sins”) jurisdiction lies exclusively with the superior court, provided the juvenile is at least 13 years of age. These crimes are: (O.C.G.A. § 15-11-560(b):
- Voluntary Manslaughter
- Aggravated Sodomy
- Aggravated Child Molestation
- Aggravated Sexual Battery
- Armed Robbery with a Firearm
Although the superior court has original jurisdiction over these cases, the District Attorney may decline to prosecute the juvenile, causing the case to be transferred to juvenile court for adjudication. This can occur only after investigation and for cause, and generally only prior to indictment. Post-indictment, cases involving juveniles alleged to have committed voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sodomy, aggravated child molestation, or aggravated sexual battery may be transferred to juvenile court only for extraordinary cause, and such transfer is appealable. See – O.C.G.A. § 15-11-560(d) & O.C.G.A. § 15-11-560(e).
The revised code also retains the provision granting the superior and juvenile courts concurrent jurisdiction over juveniles charged with acts that would be punishable by loss of life, imprisonment for life without parole, or confinement for life in a penal institution, allowing for an optional transfer from the juvenile court to the superior court. However, the revised code provides additional guidance to judges by adding criteria that a court must consider in determining whether such a case should be transferred to superior court. If the court decides in favor of transferring a case to superior court, the juvenile may immediately appeal the decision, resulting in the immediate stay of all proceedings until such appeal is heard and decided. See- O.C.G.A. § 15-11-560(a).
Any juvenile convicted in superior court under SB 440 is committed to the Department of Corrections, not the Department of Juvenile Justice, and is subject to the same sentencing requirements as adults charged with the same crimes. However, the juvenile must be housed in a juvenile facility, not an adult penal institution, until the age of 17, and must receive life skills training, education, and counseling.
In DUI cases, the juvenile offender faces a delinquency petition and adjudication therein. DUI is not a designated felony and does not have specific mandatory punishments in the new juvenile system. However, with all driving offenses, it is possible for a person’s driver’s record (MVR) to reflect a conviction, even though the criminal adjudication of delinquency would be sealed. As a result, it is possible for employers or school officials to see a “conviction” for a Georgia DUI on the MVR of a person whose case was adjudicated in juvenile court. This can cause a person great hardship insofar as obtaining future employment or business licenses.
As result, the best option in a Georgia Juvenile DUI case is a differed adjudication or diversion program. With those options, the case would not be reported to the Department of Drivers Services. So, unlike most other juvenile cases, those charged with DUI as a juvenile need to be extremely careful or the outcome will be reflected on an adult MVR.”4
Good Behavior and Juvenile Justice
Per the Juvenile Justice System website, “Under the Good Behavior legislation, youth who demonstrate they are serious about taking responsibility for their actions and achieving rehabilitation have the opportunity to ask the court for an early release, reduction in confinement time or the termination of a commitment.”5
There are specific requirements that must be met in order to qualify for Good Behavior consideration.
What Happens If My Child Is Found Guilty?
In juvenile court, unlike adult court, a juvenile may be found to be “Delinquent” which is the equivalnet of “Guilty”. The final outcome is influenced by a wide range of factors ranging from the child’s past record to the circumstances of the current matter. Potential options include:
- Informally Adjusted meaning the Court may dismiss charges after completing an informal probation period without any further legal issues.
- General Commitment
- Designated Felon Commitment
Will My Child Have a Criminal Record?
Any person found to be Delinquent will have a formaljuvenile (criminal) record. Georgia has measures in place to protect juveniles form future negative implications. Specifically, Georgia has laws which generally block juvenile crimina records from being accessible in adult background checks. Georgia Code § 15-11-708 requires that law enforcement and judiciary files for minors to be kept separate from similar records for adults. Georgia Code § 15-11-708 provides that juvenile court hearings, files and records are not available to the public.
There are some exceptions to privacy and confidentiality. Per the Juvenile Law Center website, only the following entities may view a juvenile’s records and files:
- People entrusted with the supervision of the juvenile
- Law enforcement officers and officials of institutions to which the juvenile is committed
- Juvenile probation and parole officers
- Court personnel of a court in which the juvenile is convicted of a criminal event, for the limited purpose of a pre-sentence report or other dispositional proceedings
- Juvenile’s attorney
- Juvenile’s parent/guardian
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CREDITS and FOOTNOTES
- 1 Staff Writer, “Title 16 – Crimes and Offenses”, May 13, 2020, Available from Justia
- 2 State of Georgia, “Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform”, February 1, 2017, Available from DCS Georgia
- 3 DJJ Staff, “Department of Juvenile Justice”, February 2020, Available from DJJ Website
- Photo credit, “Qimono”, available from Pixabay