Sunday, February 1, 2009

McDade: Wrong, Again

David McDade, Douglas County district attorney, infamous for his role in the Genarlow Wilson fiasco, is now registering his opposition to a proposal to alter the juvenile code to allow treating 17-year-olds in Georgia as juveniles rather than adults when they are accused of committing a crime.

Currently, Georgia is one of only fifteen states that treats an accused 17-year-old as an adult for the purpose of prosecution. Just a year after they are eligible for a driver's license, while they still cannot vote, cannot buy alcohol or cigarettes, while they still cannot even sign a consent for their own medical treatment, Georgia teens are prosecuted as adults. Now, a proposal put forward by JustGeorgia, a group working on a long overdue re-write of the juvenile code, proposes that 17-year-olds be treated as the minors they are, but McDade says:

“There’s plenty of evidence that 17- and 18-year-olds are committing some of the most violent crimes we see, and the juvenile system is not capable of protecting society from these violent offenders,” McDade said. McDade said he fears a change in the minimum age for adults in state courts would cause even more crimes among 17-year-olds. In McDade’s opinion, this proposed change, if passed, “would almost belike a recruiting poster for gangs” since 17-year-olds would suddenly face less stringent consequences for crime convictions.

First, no one is suggesting changing the rules for 18-year-olds. Second, what is it that a 17-year- old can do for a gang that a 16 year-old cannot? Third, Georgia law already provides that for certain crimes, teens even younger than 17 can be tried as adults, so don't think for a moment that what we're talking about here is a teen being told to write an essay when he's committed a violent crime. The juvenile system is far from summer camp. Fourth, following McDade's logic, I must ask, is it not possible to have a juvenile system that both offers the possibility of rehabilitation and protects us from violent criminals? Finally, is there actually any data that supports the idea that the crime rate is reduced when 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not soft on crime, juvenile or otherwise, nor do I think that every teen can be turned around. My professional experience includes working with some hardened, violent criminals who were even younger than 17. But, I would argue that it is the adult system that is ill equipped to deal with teens. Gernarlow Wilson's case is an excellent case in point. Punish, yes. Consequences for behavior, of course. Throw a life away without even a nod toward rehabilitation? At 17? I say no, and not just for the sake of the teen, but also for all of us. At some point, almost all of these teens will be released. They will live among us. What happens to them in the interim can, and often does, make them even more violent-even more dangerous. Given that, I don't know about you, but I'm willing to leave the door open to rehabilitation at least until the accused can vote for the district attorney who prosecutes him and, the convicted, the judge who sentences him.

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