“Think of the children” is a common refrain used in state capitols and city halls across the country to justify banning or regulating just about anything—even including plastic straws.
Often, this imperative is just a cheap appeal to emotion in order to score political points and has little to do with the wellbeing of children.
This tactic has been so overplayed that the TV series The Simpson’s even poked fun at it. When pushing for the reinstatement of alcohol prohibition—but faced with arguments against it—one character named Helen Lovejoy screamed out, “won’t somebody please think of the children!”
Thanks to The Simpson’s, “The attempt to gain support for weak arguments by invoking children has become known as ‘Lovejoy’s Law,’” writes the Acton Institute. While I am not a fan of employing Lovejoy’s Law, there are some things that we need to do for Georgia’s youths, but unfortunately, the General Assembly has repeatedly demurred.
Despite once leading the nation in criminal justice reform, Georgia’s juvenile justice system is a bit of a mess. The Peach State is one of only three states that automatically prosecutes all 17-year-olds as adults. This seems inappropriate since many of these youths aren’t old enough to vote or even open a checking account, but they are filed into the adult criminal system anyway.
By perpetuating the current paradigm and treating juveniles as adults, Georgia’s policymakers may be punishing to the fullest extent of the law those who lack a degree of culpability. Over the past several years, research has demonstrated that adolescent brains are still developing. The portions of the brain that provide better impulse control, resistance to peer pressure and allows people to process potential outcomes simply aren’t yet mature in juveniles.
Regardless of their brain development, as it stands, 17-year-old Georgians who break the law could very well end up with permanent criminal records that will follow them the rest of their lives. This could impact whether they can attend college, join the military, or obtain gainful employment—all because of mistakes made as youths. This stands in stark contrast with younger Georgians whose juvenile records are automatically sealed.
While most of the crimes that youths commit are misdemeanors, like underage consumption of alcohol, possession of marijuana and vandalism, sometimes they break more serious laws, and they should be held accountable. But it is important to do so with an eye toward rehabilitation.
When 17-year-olds are arrested and prosecuted, they can end up in local jails or even prison alongside adults with long rap sheets. In some cases, this may be the only appropriate option, but it shouldn’t be the default choice for all 17-year-olds. The programming in adult prisons is designed for adults—meaning youths may not have access to rehabilitative counseling tailored to their age.
Even more concerning is the fact that youths housed with adults are much more likely to be the target of violent and sexual abuse, which can leave lasting psychological damage. All of this could increase the likelihood of youths recidivating once they’re released.
Faced with this overwhelming evidence, Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-23) re-introduced a measure—HB 272—in 2021 to help address this issue. The bill would have raised the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18-years-old in many cases. It wouldn’t have prevented youths who have committed more serious crimes from being tried and sentenced as adults on a case-by-case basis.
It was a commonsense approach that could have saved the state considerable money. In fact, a Wisconsin study found that, “For every 1,000 youth returned to the juvenile system there will be $5.8 million in direct savings each year through reduced law enforcement costs, court costs, and losses to victims.”
“It is so much better for the state—better outcomes for offenders, lower overall costs, and lower recidivism rates. It's just the right thing to do,” Rep. Ballinger told me last year. Despite the promise of raising the age of adult criminal responsibility and passing the House of Representatives by wide margins, the Senate chose not to approve it earlier this year.
Sen. Elena Parent (D-42)—the Senate sponsor of the bill—believes that it stalled, in part, because “Some legislators may also have concerns about accountability and not wanting to seem lenient or ‘soft on crime,’ especially during an election year.” As she reiterated to me, if anything, raising the age would be smart on crime.
When the legislature convenes next year, there are many strong arguments for raising the age. But if strong, data-backed arguments aren’t your thing, then I am sure someone will invoke Lovejoy’s Law and exclaim “won’t somebody please think of the children!”
If there was ever a moment in which we needed to “think of the children,” I suppose this would be it.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.