ATLANTA — Raising the age for juveniles to be charged as adults in Georgia from 17 to 18 years old could require millions of dollars to construct new detention centers, according to officials in the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
Commissioner Tyrone Oliver told state House members last week that the department would not take a stance on a bill that would raise the age of juveniles to be tried as adults, but if it were to pass, legislators would have to provide additional resources.
Georgia is one of three states in the nation that charge 17-year-olds who are accused of committing a crime as an adult. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, there were more than 6,500 17-year-olds who were charged with crimes in 2018, mostly in dense, urban areas.
Based on current detention center capacity, Oliver said, the change would require at least four new detention centers to be built in areas with high numbers of teens arrested.
House Bill 440, sponsored by Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, would allow all charges against 17-year-olds to be handled in the juvenile justice system. Some advocates say the change would wipe away the criminal records of young offenders and house them in an environment that could lend to less reoffending.
However, the concern about extra costs rippled across public safety departments, from the courts to cops.
The Georgia Public Defenders Association estimated it would 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 judicial circuit, according to the Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges.
“Our issue as juvenile court judges, we want to do the right thing,” Lisa Jones, president-elect of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, told lawmakers. “But we need the tools to be able to handle it. As I’ve told you all before, I’m already strapped thin. I have two employees I can hardly ever keep because they’re so overworked and so underpaid.”
The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association estimated counties would pay $1.6 million more to carry 17-year-olds to juvenile detention centers and courts.
Georgia Sheriffs' Association Executive Director Terry Norris said placing 17-year-olds in juvenile justice centers may put younger offenders at risk for assaults, saying that from the association’s experience, 17-year-olds are more violent than other age groups.
Despite concerns, the House Juvenile Justice Committee is expected to vote this year on a Raise the Age bill.
“I’m just saying, if we do this, please don’t set us up for failure,” Jones said. “Because we’ve got it hard enough as it is right now.”
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.