Lawmakers in the Georgia House voted Monday to raise the age limit to 17 for prosecuting young defendants in juvenile court.
House Bill 462 was approved on a vote of 145-22, sending it to the state Senate for further debate.
Georgia is one of just three states, along with Texas and Wisconsin, in which 17-year-olds accused of crimes are routinely charged as adults, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Experts say teenage brains are still developing to full adulthood and they lack the impulse control that older people usually gain.
“Anyone who has ever known a 17-year-old knows how far from adulthood that 17-year-old is,” said Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton and chair of the House Juvenile Justice Committee, who has worked for years to raise the minimum age of adult defendants to 18.
Ballinger said juvenile courts have a greater emphasis on rehabilitation that should help ensure that most 17-year-old offenders “will never see the inside of a courtroom again.” And juvenile court judges can decide cases without giving defendants a permanent criminal record.
The changes would take effect in January 2025 at the soonest, and then only if the state Department of Juvenile Justice receives sufficient state funding to handle the additional caseload and has the space needed for 17-year-old detainees.
The proposed age change wouldn't apply to 17-year-olds charged with violent felonies such as murder, rape and armed robbery. Their cases would still be prosecuted in adult courts, which already handle such cases in Georgia for teenagers 13 and older.
Likewise, 17-year-old defendants would still be charged as adults for gang-related crimes, as would those facing their second or subsequent offenses. Younger teenagers in those situations would still go to juvenile court.
Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, questioned why those charged with gang crimes would be treated differently than others.
"Do you think that 17-year-olds that are recruited into gangs cannot be rehabilitated?” she asked Ballinger on the House floor.
Ballinger said she agreed to exclude gang charges and repeat offenders from her proposed changes as a concession to appease concerned prosecutors and law enforcement groups.