Did you know that Georgia’s criminal justice system considers a 17 year old to be an adult? Imagine this scenario: after going to a party and drinking, a teen robs an Uber driver with a toy gun. If this teen is 16 years old, the case will be handled in juvenile court and the teen will face a few years in a juvenile detention center (at the most). If 17, the teen faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in adult prison-- with no parole allowed.
These outcomes are as different as night and day. Many parents are not aware of this nuance and how it could impact their child and other children in the community. Understanding this distinction might save your child and family a lot of potential heartache.
Age classifications in Georgia are not universal, so it’s easy to understand why a parent might not know what age their child becomes an “adult.” At the age of 16, a teen can consent to sexual contact and get a restricted driver’s license. At the age of 17, a teen must be prosecuted as an adult for all crimes. At the age of 18, a teen can register to vote, possess a full adult driver’s license, get married, and join the military. Then, at age 21, a teen can legally buy and drink alcohol.
Since these age requirements are not consistent, they can be a lot to keep track of or simply remember. I encourage parents to remember at least one—the age that their child becomes an adult in the criminal justice system.
The main reason this distinction is so important has to do with the potential ramifications. Despite the use of a toy gun, Georgia considers the crime to be an “armed robbery,” both in the juvenile and adult court systems. The classification of the crime is where the similarities end. In juvenile court, the focus is on rehabilitation. The court would want the teen to be evaluated for any emotional, physical or mental health issues to see if this might have contributed to their behavior. Time in a youth detention center is a distinct possibility, but is not a required outcome. In adult court, the focus is on punishment. Unless the prosecutor chooses to reduce the charges, if the teen is convicted, they will spend a minimum of ten years in an adult prison.
Whether the teen is 16 or 17, their brain in still only 80% developed. Researchers explain that the part of the brain that handles cognitive processes including planning and judgment is not fully merged with the rest of the brain until much later, between the ages of 25-30. I like how researcher Frances Jensen describes the teen brain “[it] is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it." She also explains: “It’s a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.” It is clear that teens do not have the capacity to reason and think like adults, yet because of the way our law is written they are treated as if they do.
Understanding that a teen who commits a crime will be treated as an adult on their 17th birthday can empower parents to educate their children and those they love. Knowledge is certainly power, and understanding the different levels of adulthood can well serve parents, teachers, and anyone who works with teens.
Kathryn Boortz has a passion for working with youth and their families. She is the founder of Boortz Law, a law firm that focuses on juvenile defense.