The Juvenile Justice System in Georgia

The Juvenile Justice System in Georgia

What is the Juvenile Justice System?

The juvenile justice system in Georgia exists to address alleged criminal conduct by persons who are 17 years of age or younger. The juvenile justice system attempts to balance punishment and protecting the public with sentencing options that promote rehabilitation. The juvenile justice system also protects minors from a highly punitve adult justice system and sentencine guidelines.

When juveniles in Georgia are accused of a crime they almost always are processed through the juvenile justice system. In matters involving highly egregious or horrific crimes, especially for minors between 13-17 yers of age, they may be tried as an adult.

Changes to Georgia Juvenile Justice Laws

In 1971 Georgia enacted a Juvenile Code which defines and drives the juvenile justice and corrections systems. The Code was amended in 1973 with an Act which sought to achieve five objectives. These objectives were:

  1. Redefine the term "Child" to set Juvenile court jurisdiction
  2. Realign jurisdictipnal limits of Juvenile and Superior Courts
  3. Clarify procedures for mentally challenged minors
  4. Restrict publication of the names of juvenile offenders
  5. Provide for referrals by a Superior Court to a Juvenile Court

Subsequent changes to juvenile courts and prosecution processes have further improved how Georgia deals with juvenile offenders. A December 2013 article published by the Georgia Bar stated, "Technical corrections to a bill more than 200 pages long are to be expected and are anticipated to be introduced in the 2014 legislative session. Even when those corrections are made, implementation issues will take time to be sorted out and new practices will take some time to become familiar practices. Nevertheless, much progress has been made on behalf of the citizens of Georgia"2

The most recent changes address the roles and power of lawyers, prosecutors, parents, guardians and minors. A Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform has paid particular attention to ways to better deal with first-time and low-risk offenders. Specifically, the Council has sought alternatives to detention and community intervention programming.

Who Manages the Juvenile Justice System?

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is the State agency that manages matters involving youthful offenders. The DJJ website describes their operation as, "The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is a multi-faceted agency that serves the state`s youthful offenders up to the age of 21. Each day, at 26 facilities and 97 community services offices throughout the state, more than 3,500 DJJ employees work diligently to effect justice as well as redirect and shape the young lives in the agency`s care so they can take responsibility for their delinquent conduct as well as become contributing members of society. At the same time, DJJ seeks to protect the victims of crimes so that they can rebuild their lives."2

What are the Steps in the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia?

The juvenile justice system’s process begins when a youth is taken into custody. Typically, this refers to a youth being believed to have committed a crime. A minor can also be taken into custody if they are believed to have been neglected, abused, or otherwise harmed.

Juveniles have the same Rights as adults as provided under the United States Constitution, Bill of Rights and State Laws. This is particularly true regarding the right to remain silent and the right to legal representation. A minor should, at minimum, have a parent, guardian, or Guardian ad Litem present when being asked any questions about alleged criminal conduct.

In Georgia Juvenile Court dependency proceedings the court may appoint an attorney for the alleged dependent child. Additionally, the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as well as Georgia State law require the appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent an abused or neglected child throughout legal proceedings. The State has special measures in place to protect the best interests of minors going through the juvenile justice system. Regarding the Guardian ad Litem services, the Office of the Child Advocate states, "t is also required that before the appointment as a guardian ad litem in dependency cases in Juvenile Court, such person shall have received training appropriate to the role as guardian ad litem which is administered or approved by the Office of the Child Advocate for the Protection of Children (OCA). (OCGA 15-11-104(f)) This language mirrors the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) which requires that attorneys or court-appointed special advocates who are appointed as guardians ad litem (GAL) receive training appropriate to their role. CAPTA section 106(b)(2)(B)(xiii). The statute is clear that the State must have provisions and procedures in place to assure that every child who is the subject of an abuse or neglect proceeding is appointed a GAL, and that the GAL receive training appropriate to the role, including training that addresses early childhood, child, and adolescent development, prior to being to represent appointed the child in the proceeding regardless of whether the GAL is an attorney or court-appointed special advocate."3.

The Intake Process

Anytime a youth is taken into custody they will be formally processed into the system (intake). This includes ensuring provisions for their general care, welfare, and protection. In matters of criminal conduct, this process may include the involvement of medical personnel, police, counselors, and lawyers.

The intake process starts with the minor being assigned to a juvenile court intake officer. The intake officer will investigate the charges to arrive at two critical decisions within three days. The intake officer must first determine there is adequate evidence to support charges for alleged crimes. If the determination is "no" the officer will drop the case. If the determination is "yes", the officer will make a decion on whther or not to hold the minor in custody pending a preliminary hearing.

Common Reasons For Pre-Hearing Detention

There is an unlimited number of reasons a decision may be made to hold a minor in custody prior to a preliminary hearing. Some common reasons for detaining a minor include:

  • is the minor a threat to themselves or others?
  • is the minor at-risk of harm if they are not held?
  • does the minor have a safe place to live?
  • does the minor have prior criminal problems?
  • is the minor likely to cause trouble if released?

What Happens When a Minor Is Held

If the officer makes a determination to not release a child there are steps that must be followed. Firstly, the parents/guardians must be immediately notified. A dentention hearing must be scheduled and held within 72 hours of the decision. At the hearing, the presiding judge will make a decison to release the minor or continue the detention pending further prosecutorail action.

Where Are Juveniles Held?

By law, status offenders may not be kept at a detention facility for more than 72 hours. A Superior Court can mandate that a juvenile accused of highly egregious crimes be held in an adult facility. Non-delinquent juveniles are transported to a shelter-care facility. In some situations a mnor may be sent to a group home or placed in foster-care.

Being released from detention does not mean charges are dismissed. Your criminal defense lawyer can explain this to you in more detail.

Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC) Info

Below are answers to common questions about youth detention centers and how it affects parents.

  • How do I get RYDC contact location information? Contact information for Georgia DJJ Offices, RYDC and YDC locations may visit the DJJ Website locations page.
  • What happens to my child at a youth detention center? Persons admitted to a RYDC receive a physical exam and mental health assessment. Their personal property is inventoried, and they are issued RYDC clothing and personal effects. They are given a formal orientation on rules, and assigned to a room for the duration of thier stay.
  • Can I talk to my child held in a RYDC? Your child is permitted to make a phone call upon admittance to an RYDC. Moving forward, they will be allowed to make one (free) phone call per week. Your child can receive and send mail (you will need to provide them with envelopes and postage stamps).
  • Can I visit my child held in a RYDC? Visitation is allowed with certain restrictions. Parents and/or guardians should contact the appropriate RYDC to learn visitation times and rules.
  • Are their options instead of detention? In some case a judge may allow the use of electronic monitoring, home restriction, tracking, etc. Your attorney can explain how these options relate to your child’s case.
  • How do I know my child is safe? Every RYDC has and enforces strict protocols designed to to ensure personal safety, including expert staff training for protecting juveniles in detention.

The Georgia Juvenile Court Process

The Georgia Legal Aid website is an excellent resource for information on the Juvenile Justice System in Georgia. Their webiste offers the following information on the court process:

"Chronology of a Juvenile Court Case

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.

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.

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.

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, 2017.

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 dealswith 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):

  • Murder
  • Voluntary Manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Aggravated Sodomy
  • Aggravated Child Molestation
  • Aggravated Sexual Battery
  • 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."4

Good Behavior and Juvenile Justice

Per the Juvenile Justic System website, "Under the Good Behavior legislation, youth who demonstrate they are serious about taking responsibility for their actions and achieving rehabilitation have the opportunity to ask the court for an early release, reduction in confinement time or the termination of a commitment."5

There are specific requirements that must be met in order to qualify for Good Behavior consideration.

What Happens If My Child Is Found Guilty?

In juvenile court, unlike adult court, a juvenile may be found to be "Delinquent" which is the equivalnet of "Guilty". The final outcome is influenced by a wide range of factors ranging from the child’s past record to the circumstances of the current matter. Potential options include:

  • Informally Adjusted meaning the Court may dismiss charges after completing an informal probation period without any further legal issues.
  • Probation
  • General Commitment
  • Designated Felon Commitment

Will My Child Have a Criminal Record?

Yes, a person found to be Delinquent will have juvenile records. Georgia has privacy laws which generally preclude these records from causing issues in their adult life. Georgia Code § 15-11-708 requires that law enforcement and judiciary files for mnors to be kept separate from similar records for adults. Georgia Code § 15-11-708 provides that juvenile court hearings, files and records are not available to the public.

There are some exceptions to privacy and confidentiality. Per the Juvenile Law Center website, "e;the following parties are able to view a juvenile’s records and files:

  • People entrusted with the supervision of the child
  • Law enforcement officers and officials of institutions to which the child is committed
  • Juvenile probation and parole officers
  • Court personnel of a court in which the child is convicted of a criminal event, for the limited purpose of a presentence report or other dispositional proceedings
  • Child’s attorney
  • Child’s parent/guardian
  • Child

Additional exceptions to confidentiality:

  • Nature of Offenses: The public may access records when a juvenile is alleged to have committed a designated felony.
  • Number of Offenses: The public may access records when a juvenile facing an allegation of delinquency has also previously been adjudicated delinquent.
  • Emergency Circumstances: Juvenile records can be made public when the interest of national security requires, the case is one where the general public has access to proceedings, or the court otherwise orders in the best interests of the child.

The record includes complaints, petitions, court orders, summonses, rights forms, notices of appeal, publications, applications for publication, data sheets, histories, investigative reports, supervision summaries, police reports, detention reports, correspondence and transcripts. 6


If you’re involved in a matter of juvenile crimes or delinquency you should contact a qualified criminal defense lawyer. Our firm is uniquely qualified to provide both juvenile criminal defense and Guardian ad Litem services.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1 Collaborative, "Georgia’s Juvenile Code: New Law for the New Year", December 2013, Available from Georgia Bar (pp 13-19)
  • 2 DJJ Staff, "Department of Juvenile Justice", February 2020, Available from DJJ Website
  • 3 OCA Staff, "Guardian ad Litem", January 2020, Available from OCA Website
  • 4 Carl Vinson Institute, "The Juvenile Justice System", January 2020, Available from Georgia Legal Aid
  • 5 DJJ Staff, "Department of Juvenile Justice FAQ", February 2020, Available from DJJ Website
  • 6 JLC Staff, "Juvenile Law Center Fact Sheet", January 2014, Available from Juvenile Law Center