ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News investigates police and prosecutors’ frustrations with how the juvenile justice system handles repeat offenders.
For 10 months, Channel 2′s Michael Seiden has been digging into Georgia’s troubled system.
Body cam video obtained by Channel 2 Action News shows what police officers are up against.
“Where’s your gun at? You got a gun?” an Atlanta Police officer asked a juvenile suspect.
“No, ma’am,” replied the juvenile.
They are arresting the same teenagers again and again for the same crimes. The teens are working the system.
“I’m going to keep doing what I do until I turn 17,” said another teenager on body camera video.
“Don’t be surprised if you’re like the rest of the cats out here at 21, you’re a convicted felon,” replied a Georgia State Patrol trooper.
“I was thinking I’m being attacked by a child,” said Kelly Galloway who survived a violent attack in Northwest Atlanta in May 2019.
Police charged 17-year-old D’Shawn Garrison. He is currently serving a life sentence in prison.
A Channel 2 Action News investigation found that Garrison had racked up more than a dozen prior arrests as a teenager.
Court records show that he had just gotten out of jail for an armed carjacking while wearing an ankle monitor two days before he attacked Galloway.
“Our investigators, our officers daily are impacted by the challenges within the juvenile justice system,” said Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum.
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He said one of the biggest problems with the system is Georgia’s juvenile point system called the DAI, or Detention Assessment Instrument.
It’s used to assign a score depending on the severity of the crime. A score of 12 or above suggests the juvenile offender, any child under the age of 17, should be detained.
“When I’m 17, I ain’t going to do it no more,” said a teenager detained by officers on body camera video.
Schierbaum said gangs are recruiting kids to commit crimes, especially to steal guns out of cars.
“And individuals know that if you are below the age of 17, there are certain limitations that exist that gangs are in fact exploiting,” said Chief Schierbaum.
There is also major frustration with the juvenile jails, like Fulton County’s Youth Detention Center, where they are severely understaffed.
“Our officers sat there several hours with a detention officer informing us that that individual would not be permitted into their jail on a murder charge if we don’t get this number,” said Atlanta Police Assistant Commander Ralph Woolfolk.
Body camera footage from a separate case clearly illustrates the problem.
“We’re stuck outside with nobody out here for like 20 minutes,” said an Atlanta Police officer.
“I’m short-staffed,” said the detention facility officer. “I don’t have a male officer here at this facility tonight so, I have to call like um DeKalb or Rockdale to get a male to search the kid,” the officer continued.
“There’s definitely a lot of blame that can be spread around,” said Brett Pinion the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office chief deputy over the special victims’ unit, who oversees juvenile court cases.
He said unlike superior court, where there are mandatory minimums for violent crimes, the guidelines for sentencing children are far less stringent.
“Often, we are looking at the juvenile can’t be sentenced to anything but probation. Very frequently if it is more serious and they’re a repeat offender, the maximum they’re looking at is 30 days in jail,” Pinion said.
Retired Forsyth County Juvenile Judge John Russell Jackson told Channel 2 Action News that the goal of the juvenile system is not to lock up kids, but to rehabilitate them.
But in order to do that:
“You have to have resources. You have to have programming. You have to have things that can actually provide rehabilitation for children,” Jackson said. “And one of the problems with the system is the state, in particular, has not stepped up to the plate with any real effective funding for juvenile courts.”
Republican State Rep. Mandi Ballinger is chair of the state’s Juvenile Justice Committee. She said she is working to find additional funding and improve policies.
“So, we need good juvenile-focused policies in place and we also need the funding there,” Ballinger said.
This is a complex problem.
Jackson said in addition to revamping the juvenile points system, the governor should appoint a commission to study how to fix the system.
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