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A bill to raise the maximum age for youth offenders to be tried in juvenile court from 16 to 17 advanced in the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, the bill would make it so 17-year-olds would no longer be tried in court and jailed with adult offenders for misdemeanor charges. Teenagers would still be tried as adults for violent crimes like murder and rape.

Ballinger, who has brought the age-raise bill several times in recent legislative sessions, noted Georgia is currently one of just three states that prosecutes 17-year-olds for low-level crimes in adult court.

“Very few times are we offered to do the pure right thing,” Ballinger said at a hearing Wednesday. “This is the right thing for 17-year-olds.”

The bill passed by 5-3 in the Senate Judiciary Committee and now heads to the full Senate. It cleared the state House of Representatives earlier this month by a 113-51 vote.

On top of raising the juvenile-offender age, Ballinger’s bill would set up a committee of state officials, sheriffs, prosecutors and defense attorneys to look for ways to help police agencies and juvenile detention centers deal with an increase of youth offenders including 17-year-olds.

The age raise would take effect in 2023 if the bill gains final passage and is signed into law.

Supporters pointed out more than 13,000 17-year-olds were arrested in 2020, mostly for minor crimes like theft. With Ballinger’s bill, those teens would not be forced into cells with violent adults and would not carry criminal records when applying for college or jobs.

“By far, it’s the lower-level kids who are 17-years-old that won’t come away with a record,” said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “What this bill will do is change how you treat the shoplifters and the many misdemeanors.”

Critics warned that including 17-year-olds in the juvenile system could tax shorthanded jail staff and police agencies, as well as create costs for counties in charge of juvenile detention facilities to absorb.

Law enforcement representatives also cautioned many 17-year-olds can be just as violent as adult criminals and might act as a bad influence on younger offenders in juvenile facilities.

“The kids that are going through the [juvenile detention centers] are not the children that got caught using tobacco,” said Dwayne Orrick, assistant executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and a former police chief in Roswell.

Ballinger’s bill comes as state lawmakers eye other criminal-justice legislation this session including a measure to repeal Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which is awaiting a final vote in the Senate.

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