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Overview of the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia

About Richard Lawson

History of Georgia's Juvenile Justice System:

Georgia's previous juvenile code went into effect in 1971, and under that system, the juvenile courts had jurisdiction over three types of cases:  deprivation cases (cases involving children lacking "proper parental care or control, subsistence, education as required by law, or other care or control necessary for the child's physical, mental, or emotional health or morals," and children in foster care), delinquency cases (cases involving children who have committed delinquent acts that would be crimes if the offender were an adult), and status offenses (cases involving children who have committed acts that are only offenses because of the offender's status as a child).   Since 1971, the juvenile code was modified piecemeal by amendments and lacked any coherent order, resulting in confusion among lawyers and judges.

In 2011, The Georgia General Assembly created the inter-branch Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, which resulted in sweeping reforms to the adult justice system.  In 2012, Governor Nathan Deal expanded the scope of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform to include juvenile justice issues, charging the Council with the task of "identifying ways to improve outcomes; developing fiscally sound, data-driven juvenile justice policies; and ensuring Georgia's tax dollars are used effectively and efficiently.  The Council found that while the costs of Georgia's juvenile justice system were enormous, these expenditures were neither preventing juvenile crime nor reducing recidivism.  See - The Special Council On Criminal Justice Reform For Georgians, Report Of The Special Council On Criminal Justice Reform For Georgians, 2012.   

According to the Council's report, in 2013 the Department of Juvenile Justice was appropriated $300 million.  Nearly $200 million of that was used to operate Georgia's out-of-home facilities such as the Youth Development Campuses (YDCs) or Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs).  The study found that despite this high cost of incarcerating youth, more than 50% of youth adjudicated for a crime were either re-adjudicated in juvenile court or convicted of a crime in adult court within three years of release, with re-adjudication rates rising to 65% for youth held in the state's secure residential institutions.  The study also found that a significant portion of juveniles in out-of-home placements, including the YDCs and RYDCs as well as non-secure residential facilities, are misdemeanor or status offenders.  Many more are low-risk felony offenders.

The council concluded that one significant method of reducing costs would be to focus the state's costly out-of-home facilities on higher-risk, serious offenders.  The study found that housing a youth in a YDC or RYDC costs an average of $90,000 per year. There was no correlation found between money spent per offender and better outcomes long-term.

Purpose of Georgia's Juvenile Justice System:

Under Georgia's new Juvenile Justice Code, the stated purpose of the juvenile justice system is “to promote a juvenile justice system that will protect the community, impose accountability for violations of law, provide treatment and rehabilitation, and equip juvenile offenders with the ability to live responsibly and productively[,]…to preserve and strengthen family relationship[s, and] to guarantee due process of law.” See - O.C.G.A. § 15-11-1.

Procedural Due Process for Juveniles Charged with Crimes:

The new code clarifies and codifies procedural due process protections for juveniles alleged delinquent.  Under the new law,  a delinquency petition must be filed by a licensed attorney (previously, any person could make a delinquency petition, which was required to be endorsed by the juvenile court as being in the best interest of the public or the child).  See - O.C.G.A. § 15-11-37.

Further, under the new law, a prosecuting attorney must represent the state in all delinquency matters. See -  O.C.G.A. § 15-11-474.  The juvenile has a right to an attorney, and this right may be waived only by the child and only in certain circumstances.  See - O.C.G.A. § 15-11-475.  The attorney has the right to obtain records from schools, service providers and certain government agencies with the child's permission and court order.  No parental consent is required.  Further, if a parent neglects to protect the child's best interest or fails to accompany the child to court, a guardian ad litem must be appointed to protect the child's interests.

Chronology of a Juvenile Court Case:

A.  The Arrest:

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.

B.  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.

C.  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.

D.  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:

Designated Felonies:

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, December 2012.

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 deals with 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):

  1. Murder
  2. Voluntary Manslaughter
  3. Rape
  4. Aggravated Sodomy
  5. Aggravated Child Molestation
  6. Aggravated Sexual Battery
  7. 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.

Act Now To Protect Your Child's Future And Well-Being:

If your child has been charged with DUI in Georgia a juvenile, contact our office 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We are here to protect your child's rights and their future. Richard Lawson is a former Juvenile Court prosecutor with almost 20 year's experience handling juvenile cases in Georgia.  He is also Georgia's top-rated and most reviewed lawyer.  His reviews can be found on AvvoCall now because your child's future is depending on it.

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