Officials say adult jails no place for youths

Working in Augusta's youth detention centers for two decades, Elliott Norman has seen plenty of boys graduate to adult prison.

Like other states, Georgia got swept up in the crackdown on youth crime in the 1990s, with legislators adding "seven deadly sins" to state law that can put teenagers in the adult criminal system with 10-year minimum sentences.

Mr. Norman, now director of the short-term Regional Youth Detention Center where offenders can be held before Superior Court sentencings, said he has mixed feelings about the practice. The worst offenders deserve sanctions, he said, but juvenile facilities focus on rehabilitation and education rather than punishment alone, and shipping them off could wipe out any chance of making them productive citizens.

"The problem is not rehabilitation," Mr. Norman said. "The problem is habilitation, because they don't have the skills they need to know how to act. I'm afraid that once they go to the Department of Corrections, they get taught by hardened criminals."

With a coalition of attorneys and nonprofit groups setting out to rewrite the juvenile justice code, and with new research indicating that incarcerating teens with adults makes them more likely to be re-arrested for violent crimes, some say it's time to rethink how Georgia handles its worst juvenile offenders.

"I think it's excessive and overkill," Georgia Alliance for Children President Rick McDevitt said. "I don't think that kid should get a hug, but I don't think he should go to the Department of Juvenile Justice until he's 17, then go to Reidsville (site of Georgia State Prison). A 17-year-old in Reidsville is nothing but fresh meat."

According to the state Department of Corrections, there are 111 inmates in adult prisons between ages 15 and 17. Most are kept segregated at Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, spokeswoman Mallie McCord said.

Of the state's total inmate population, 781 were sentenced at age 16 or younger, including 184 serving life sentences and two serving life without parole. Those figures include inmates tried as adults even before the "seven deadly sins" went on the books, back when juvenile judges had sole discretion to send certain cases to Superior Court.

Passed in 1994, Senate Bill 440 automatically sends offenders between 13 and 17 years old to Superior Court if they're charged with murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, armed robbery with a gun, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy or aggravated sexual battery. Senate Bill 441 imposed minimum 10-year sentences. Prosecutors, though, have discretion to return the cases to Juvenile Court, where the cases are treated as designated felonies and defendants can be sentenced to as much as five years in a juvenile facility.

A report released last week by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services -- an independent panel of community health experts formed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- recommended against laws transferring youths into the adult system. If trying youths as adults is a strategy to prevent crime, the report said, it's failing miserably because they're more likely to go on to commit violent offenses.

Recent psychological research has found that the human brain is still maturing during the adolescent years and reasoning and judgment are still in flux as late as the mid-20s. Experts say teens are therefore more likely to act impulsively without understanding consequences.

State Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan, D-Austell, has been trying to undo SB 440 and SB 441 since her election in 2003, and she said she'll introduce altering legislation again next year. One bill would do away with 10-year mandatory sentences and another would give discretion back to juvenile courts as to which teens get tried as adults.

"It's so unjust, the way we're treating children," said Ms. Morgan, a member of the Children and Youth Committee.

Her attempts to change that treatment have yet to reach the House floor. The bills have been watered down, tabled or stuck in committee, even when Democrats controlled the Legislature in 2003.

She's expecting her effort to get a bit more traction this year in light of the high-profile Genarlow Wilson case. Mr. Wilson was 17 years old when he was charged, and the mandatory 10-year sentence he received for consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old sparked public outrage and led the Georgia Supreme Court to order him released.

Another chance to rethink the "seven deadly sins" could come through JUSTGeorgia, a coalition of nonprofits and attorneys that wants to present an overhauled juvenile justice code during the 2009 General Assembly, at the earliest.

Sharon Hill, a former Fulton County Juvenile Court judge and executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said she has no doubt that the "seven deadly sins" part of the code will be a hot-button issue. Gripes about youths languishing for six months or more in juvenile jails while awaiting trial in adult court have already come up, she said.

"It is worth the effort," Ms. Hill said, "to do it better than we're currently doing it."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.