During Gov. Nathan Deal’s tenure, Georgia has vaulted to the vanguard of criminal justice reform. But as he closes out his final term, the state’s justice system still desperately needs attention. As it stands, Georgia remains on a shrinking island of state outliers that automatically prosecutes minors as adults. It is now one of only four states that still does so, after Missouri became the 46th state to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 earlier this year.
The reason that over 90 percent of states have moved in this direction is based on research and common sense. Intuitively, if minors cannot be trusted with the responsibility of voting, buying a lottery ticket or sitting on a jury, then why should they be judged as adults?
The simple fact is that trying 17-year-olds as adults is unfair. While they do not enjoy the rights of adults, these adolescents shoulder the responsibilities of those at the age of majority. If convicted, Georgia’s system saddles them with permanent criminal records. Housing adolescents in adult correctional facilities also puts them at risk of abuse and increases their likelihood of committing further crimes once they are released. Despite these realities, the state still treats all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system automatically. This practice needs to be abandoned.
The need to exclude 17-year-olds from automatic adjudication in the adult criminal justice system is backed by science. Research demonstrates that youths, even at 17, lack a degree of culpability because they are still developing cognitively. All adolescents are prone to act hastily without considering consequences. Even at 17, the impulse to unreasonably behave aggressively still hasn’t dissipated, and the ability to think and act rationally hasn’t completely developed yet. All of this suggests that, from a scientific perspective, an adolescent is more a child than an adult. Therefore, they should not be punished as adults.
By treating all 17-year-olds as adults, Georgia burdens them with permanent adult criminal records — regardless of their alleged crime. Thus, mistakes committed by developing children will haunt them for the rest of their adult lives. Having a mark on one’s criminal record can have lasting and devastating effects. Certain criminal records can limit individual rights and privileges, including being allowed to vote or having access to federal education loans. It also prevents many from obtaining jobs which, in turn, can cause them to return to crime to make ends meet.
Placing youths in adult prisons is also counterproductive to public safety. Given that 80 percent of youths convicted as adults will be released by the time they are 21 — and 95 percent by their 25th birthday — it is vital that they receive treatment that effectively facilitates their re-entry into society. However, with fewer specialized youth programs in adult prisons and lower inmate-to-staff ratios, the end result of placing adolescents in prison is often more crime. These individuals are 34 to 77 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who are housed in juvenile facilities.
It’s also clear that youths are put in serious danger when incarcerated in adult prisons. While there, they face heightened psychological and physical risks. Juveniles housed in adult prisons commit suicide at nine times the rate of those in juvenile facilities, and they are often targets of abuse at the hands of fellow inmates or even correctional staff. Nationally, youths comprise less than 1 percent of the prison population, but they are the victims of 21 percent of prison’s sexual violence. The state ought to take protective measures to aid youths — even those convicted of crimes.
Despite the progress made on Georgia’s criminal justice system, the Peach State still has the ninth-highest overall incarceration rate, and as of 2015, around 1,000 children were incarcerated in Georgia’s adult prisons. Many of these youths would be better served in juvenile facilities or community-based programs. This is because these facilities are tailor-made to rehabilitate them, reduce the harm inflicted upon them, and provide the support that they so desperately need to become productive adults.
Rather than employing an undiscerning dragnet that treats all 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, Georgia should raise the age of legal responsibility — as 46 other states have already done. This doesn’t mean that adolescents will not be held accountable, nor does it mean that youths in particularly heinous circumstances cannot be judged as adults. There are other methods that permit treating juveniles as adults in special instances. Ultimately, however, Georgia ought to treat kids like the children that they are. This will lead to a safer society.
Marc Hyden is the Southeast region director for the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.