Georgia legislators push for harsher punishments on juveniles

Fulton County Juvenile Court, pictured above, is just one of many courts that could see changes on jurisdictions if legislation mandates harsher sentencing on certain crimes committed by juveniles. Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

Georgia Rep, Bert Reeves is pushing for legislation that would make harsher sentences for juveniles.

Reeves is the main sponsor of House Bill 116 (HB 116), which will specifically target young people, as young as 13, who are charged with aggravated assault with a firearm and aggravated battery, specifically against police officers and people over the age of 65. If HB 116 passes, a juvenile can be tried for this crime as an adult.

“The original bill proposed adding aggravated assault with a firearm generally, but that provision has been removed,” said Rep. Robert Trammell, cosponsor of HB 116, speaking about a change made to the bill on Feb. 16th.

A main concern opposers have with the bill is the fundamental difference between juvenile and adult court and the impacts it can have on a young person.

The adult court system’s goal is “to discourage people from committing a crime,” according to Melissa D. Carter, a professor of Law at Emory University. A sentence to adult court goes on a person’s permanent record and can affect future jobs.

However,  the juvenile court system is based on “rehabilitation and treatment” and on a “capability of changing.” In a juvenile prison, a young person would receive rehabilitation services and would continue their education, resources they would not have in an adult prison system.

“Kids are developmentally and socially very distinct from adults and should be treated that way. Juvenile delinquency court offers resources and supports that are not available in adult court,” said Cory Isaacson, Staff Attorney at the Georgia Justice Project. “HB 116 would increase the number of young people who are denied age-appropriate resources and support, and seeks to instead treat more young people as adults during the court process and throughout the sentencing.”

But according to Rep. Robert Trammel, the crime fits the punishment.

“The bill adds a serious and life-threatening  offense to the list of offenses over which superior court has jurisdiction,” said Rep. Robert Trammel. “Shooting at law enforcement and persons over 65 are cases that should presumptively be tried as adult cases in superior court. Intentionally shooting at someone is the type of dangerous behavior that should receive the most serious treatment the law affords.”

According to Isaacson, bills like this do not serve a purpose of increasing public safety.

“Not only is this ethically wrong, it also makes no sense in terms of public safety—research shows that trying young people as adults increases recidivism rates,” said Isaacson.

A similar bill, House Bill 259 (HB 259), sponsored by Alan Powell, has also been introduced. HB 259, however, is much broader, making aggravated assault or aggravated battery offenses that can put a young person in adult prison as well.

“A schoolyard fight, physical altercations with family, the use of hands and feet all constitute as an aggravated battery” said Carter.