'7 deadly sins' law gets another look

ATLANTA --- Mitchell Bieber will have spent almost two-thirds his life behind the walls of a Georgia prison by the time he's 50.

Declaring Mr. Bieber impossible to rehabilitate, an Effingham County Superior Court judge in February sentenced the 16-year-old, who admitted to murdering his 7-year-old half brother and stabbing his mother and stepfather with the same knife, to 45 years in prison. The sentence was "so it doesn't happen again," the judge said.

Most lesser crimes would have landed Mr. Bieber before a juvenile court judge and would have come with a sentence geared more toward rehabilitation than punishment. But Mr. Bieber committed one of the "seven deadly sins" under Georgia law, giving jurisdiction of his case to adult criminal courts and their lengthy mandatory sentences.

Now 17, Mr. Bieber is one of 66 youths younger than 18 sentenced to state prison for convictions under the seven deadly sins law, enacted in 1994. He could be among the last.

Set to land in legislators' hands in 2009, a proposed rewrite of the state's juvenile code would back off from get-tough statutes that automatically send cases involving youths 13 and older who are accused of the most heinous crimes to adult criminal courts. Instead, juvenile court judges would decide which cases are fit for superior court.

"By and large, most juveniles (charged as adults) are kids who are exercising very poor judgment, but they can be rehabilitated," said Sharon Hill, a retired Fulton County juvenile court judge who is the executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit public interest law center that is a partner in the code rewrite project.

But several prosecutors call the proposed policy shift a mistake and say juvenile courts are not equipped to hand out sentences matching the severity of today's violent youth offenders.

"They're not throwing eggs at cars anymore. They're killing people, committing armed robberies, with guns. It's different," said Effingham County District Attorney Richard Mallett, whose office prosecuted Mr. Bieber.

In the mid-1990s, a number of states enacted statutes to handle what was seen as an emerging class of young offenders -- juvenile "superpredators," a remorseless breed of violent criminal -- after violent crimes committed by youths reached a peak in 1994. Most of the new laws allowed youths to be tried as adults.

The superpredator theory never fully materialized, and the juvenile crime rate began falling by the time many of the tougher sanctions took effect, leaving many to question whether prosecuting children as adults was the right way forward.

Reach Jake Armstrong at (404) 589-8424 or jake.armstrong@morris.com.

THE '7 DEADLY SINS'

Under Senate Bill 440, enacted in 1994, juveniles 13 to 17 are automatically tried as adults for committing murder, rape, armed robbery using a firearm, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery or voluntary manslaughter.