The first step in almost any successful criminal defense is forming an understanding of the relevant systems and procedures. This is how the attorneys are able to give the best possible advice once they know the details of a given case. It is especially important to understand the system when it is as complex as the juvenile court in Georgia.

One of the most typically confusing elements of the system is jurisdiction. It is not always certain ahead of time — not certain based on age, at least — whether a child will face trial in the juvenile or superior courts.

There are some relative certainties, however. As explained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, Georgia is one of five states that sets the maximum age limit for juvenile court at 16. The remaining 45 states place the age limit at 17.

However, not every defendant 16 years of age or younger will automatically have a trial in the juvenile system. The rules for what happens to defendants under 16 who have committed serious crimes are somewhat complicated. In some cases, prosecutors have discretion on whether to refer the case to the superior court. In others, the higher court automatically has jurisdiction.

The rules governing this are known as transfer laws. The Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs guide to Georgia’s transfer law provides four situations in which a child could be transferred to a higher court. The first two are possible after a hearing, and the second two depend on statutory requirements:

  • When the juvenile court decides it is necessary for the child and the community
  • When certain offenses are involved
  • For most crimes in which the punishment is loss of life or life imprisonment, at any age
  • For certain crimes, such as murder

The OJP guide notes that the higher court may also retransfer to juvenile courts when necessary. However, this resource is simply an outline of rules and procedures. Each situation is different, and many require case-specific interpretation.