What should I know about the juvenile justice system?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Juvenile justice

Juvenile justice system in Georgia


What cases are heard in juvenile courts in Georgia?

Georgia juvenile courts are controlled by the juvenile code. The philosophy of the juvenile courts is to be protective of the child rather than punitive (aimed at punishment). The juvenile court is to do what is in the best interest of the child while considering the best interests of society.


Each county also has a juvenile court. They hear all matters involving minors under 17 years old who are accused of:

  • A delinquent act. These are acts that would be a crime if it was committed by an adult.

    • For some serious felonies, including murder and rape, anyone over 12 years old will be charged as an adult. 

  • A status offense. These are acts that are only crimes when a juvenile does them, including:

    • Skipping school (truancy), or

    • Running away.

  • Traffic offenses.


The juvenile court hears dependency cases for minors under the age of 18. A dependency action is brought to remove the child from the custody of their parent or guardian when a child is thought to be: 

  • abused, 

  • neglected, or 

  • without a parent or guardian,. 


Juvenile courts have concurrent jurisdiction with probate courts when a permanent guardian is appointed for a minor. These courts might handle legitimation and child support matters that come up during dependency cases.


Juvenile courts also handle:

  • Consent for marriage of a minor, 

  • Enlistment of a minor in the military, and 

  • Child emancipation cases. 

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What are a juvenile’s rights in Georgia’s justice system?

Like adults, juveniles have rights when they are charged with a crime in Georgia.

  • You have the right to enter a plea of not guilty.

  • You have the right to an attorney throughout all trial proceedings.

  • If you cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to ask the court to appoint one at no cost to you.

  • You have the right to be presumed innocent throughout the court proceedings unless you are found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • You have the right to present evidence in your own defense.

  • You have the right to confront witnesses who testify against you at trial.

  • You have the right to remain silent at trial or testify in your own defense. Silence cannot be used against you.

  • If you are found guilty at trial, you have the right to appeal. 


Minors in the juvenile justice system have some additional protections. 

  • Although not required by Georgia law, it is desirable for parents, a legal guardian, or an attorney to be present when a youth is questioned by the police or anyone else.

  • The Georgia Supreme Court has held that parents should be present when a child waives their Fifth Amendment privileges.

  • The rules for deciding if a confession can be used against a defendant in court are stricter for juveniles than for adults in Georgia. 

    • A court considers whether the juvenile waived their rights knowingly and voluntarily. 

    • It takes into account factors such as the juvenile's age, education, and their understanding of the meaning of their rights.

    • Interrogation methods and whether the juvenile was allowed to consult with an adult would also be considered.

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When can a juvenile be taken into custody?

A youth may be taken into custody if there are reasonable grounds to believe that he or she has committed a delinquent act or a status offense. A youth may also be taken into custody if he or she has been abused and/or neglected. Neither of these events is considered an arrest, so the youth can legally claim never to have been arrested. This claim is true as long as the youth's only contact with the criminal justice system is through the juvenile court.

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What happens after the arrest of a juvenile in Georgia?

Detention Hearing

If a minor, under the age of 17, is arrested and taken into custody, the police officer must:

  • Release the child to their guardian,

  • Take the child to a hospital if they need treatment, or

  • Contact a juvenile intake officer.

    • The intake officer does a Detention Assessment to decide whether the minor is released to their guardians or taken into custody.


If the child is taken into custody, the Juvenile Court must hold a detention hearing within:

  • 5 days if the minor was arrested on an arrest warrant, or 

  • 2 days if the minor was arrested without a warrant. 


At a detention hearing, the judge must tell the minor about:

  • The charges and proceedings,

  • The possible consequences,

  • Their due process rights,

  • Their right to ask for bail. 


During the detention hearing the judge must decide two things:

  • First the judge decides if it is in the best interest of the child and society for the case to go to a formal hearing. If so, a petition is filed. 

  • Then, the judge must decide whether the child should be detained until the formal hearing. In Georgia, juveniles have the right to make bail if they are detained.


The judge will decide whether to:

  • Send the minor home. This is the most likely outcome. Most minors are not detained. The judge might impose conditions of release, such as:

    • Home confinement, or

    • Therapy.

  • Detain the minor. Where the child is sent will depend on the charges. 

    • For delinquent acts, detention might be at a Regional Youth Detention Center.

    • For status offenses, they may go to a youth or foster home. 


Decision on the charges

After the decision is made about whether to detain the minor, the court intake officer will investigate the charges. There are three possible outcomes:

  • Release. If the intake officer finds that there is not enough evidence, they will drop the charges. This is called “release.”

  • Informal adjustment. Informal adjustment is unique to the juvenile justice system. It is similar to probation. If there is an informal adjustment, the court doesn’t have a formal hearing but retains jurisdiction over the youth for three months. (The judge can extend this period for another three months.) The court might require counseling, school attendance, or restitution. Generally, informal adjustments are used with first offenders of minor delinquent acts. For there to be an informal adjustment: 

    • the youth must have admitted wrongdoing. 

    • the youth and their parents must agree to the process. 

  • Formal hearing. For there to be a formal hearing, the court must decide that it is in the best interest of the child and society. A petition is filed and then:

    • A date is set for the formal hearing, and

    • The guardians and child are notified by summons.

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What happens during the formal hearing of a juvenile in Georgia?

The primary goal in the formal hearing for juveniles is to do whatever is in the best interest of the child, whereas in a trial, it is to determine whether the defendant (an adult or juvenile who is being treated as an adult) is guilty or not guilty. Juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial. 


A formal hearing has two parts: 

  • an adjudicatory hearing and 

  • a dispositional hearing.


Adjudicatory hearing

This first part is basically the same as an adult trial. Its purpose is to determine whether the child committed a delinquent or unruly act. 

  • The adjudicatory hearing must be held within 10 days of the detention hearing if the juvenile remains in custody. 

  • It must take place within 60 days of arraignment if the youth is not held in detention.


After listening to all of the evidence, the judge decides whether the child committed the offense charged. 

  • If the judge finds the youth did not commit the offense charged, the youth will be released. 

  • If the judge finds that the juvenile did commit the offense charged, then a dispositional hearing will be held.


Dispositional hearing

The second part of the formal hearing is the dispositional hearing. It may immediately follow the adjudicatory hearing, but it often takes place at a later date. In the dispositional hearing, the judge decides what the treatment is to be. It is similar to a sentencing hearing after an adult trial.


At the dispositional hearing, the prosecution and the defense can call witnesses and present evidence. Remember, the goal of the judge is to order whatever they think is in the best interests of the juvenile. 


Dispositions may be negotiated or non-negotiated. This is similar to a plea deal in adult court. 


After hearing the evidence, the judge has several treatment choices:

  • Release the child to the custody of their guardian with no court supervision.

  • Place the child on probation with certain conditions.

  • Commit the child to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

  • Detain the juvenile at a youth detention center for up to 90 days.

  • Send the juvenile to an outdoor program or boot camp.

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What happens after the formal hearing of a juvenile in Georgia?

If a juvenile is committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice, the department will determine where he or she will be placed and for how long. Initially, a screening committee of the department-including a representative of the juvenile court and parent(s)-makes these decisions.

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What can I do if I am a juvenile and I am charged with a delinquent act or status offense?

If you are arrested, you have rights. To protect your rights:

  • You do not have to answer any questions from the police.

  • Ask for a lawyer immediately. If you can’t afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you.

  • Ask for your parents or guardians to be called.

  • You do not have to answer the intake officer’s questions. The intake officer works for the court. Their job is to decide whether you should be released or held in detention.

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Can I appeal a judge’s final judgment?

If you disagree with the judge’s final decision in your juvenile court case, you have the right to appeal that decision. Appeals are made to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. If you wish to appeal, consult a lawyer who handles juvenile cases to help you protect your rights.

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Last Review and Update: Jun 05, 2023
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