LaGrange City Council discusses juvenile justice

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2023

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Just hours after the arrest of 13-year-old Jayden Gunsby for the murder of Davaris Lindsey, the LaGrange City Council met with court and law enforcement officials and other leaders throughout the community to discuss increasing youth violence and potentially impose stiffer penalties for kids with guns.

“We’ve had four deaths this year, one each month, which is heartbreaking because you don’t have four families affected. You have eight families affected. That’s the one that’s dead and then the one that did the crime, so eight families are hurting,” Mayor Willie Edmondson said.

Lindsey was shot on April 9 and passed away at a metro area hospital two days later on April 11. That same day the LaGrange City Council called for stronger law enforcement to help curb youth violence. Councilman Mark Mitchell also suggested speaking with Juvenile Court Judge Michael Key about ensuring juvenile defendants who are caught with guns get adequate punishment.

Mitchell invited Key and other community leaders to discuss the issue at the council work session on Tuesday morning.

Key began by explaining the limitations of juvenile court and what they can do for kids.

“Our jurisdiction is limited to children under the age of 17. In Georgia, when you turn 17, you’re criminally responsible as an adult,” Key said. “If a child committed a delinquent act at 16, we can adjudicate them after that. We can maintain jurisdiction until they are 21.”

Judge Key said there have been some failed efforts to raise the age because kids’ brains aren’t fully developed by then. He said there has also been some pushback from law enforcement saying that is soft on crime.

“We know that children’s brains are still developing basically until around 25, but at 17, they’ve still got that same brain as a 16-year-old,” Key said.

Key explained that there are four types of delinquent acts for juveniles: misdemeanors, felonies, designated felonies and what they call “440 kids,” who he said are sent to District Attorney Herb Cranford.

“That’s the 13-year-old we’re talking about. Those the ones that commit one of the “seven deadly sins” and go directly to Superior Court,” Key said.

Children between 13 and 17 years old are prosecuted as an adult if they are charged with one of Georgia’s “seven deadly sins,” which include murder, rape, armed robbery (with a firearm), aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and voluntary manslaughter. Younger children can also be prosecuted as an adult, but only at the determination of juvenile court.

Key said their hands are tied with juveniles that commit misdemeanors.

“We’re limited as to misdemeanors, no matter how many they may commit, to probation. That’s it,” Key said. “A lot of our families have been terrorized by their children in their home by committing misdemeanor after misdemeanor after misdemeanor, and there’s nothing we can do with the case but probation … We cannot place them in a secure or non-secure residential facility.”

Key said they can only sentence juveniles beyond probation if they have committed a felony. They can also face stiffer punishment for misdemeanors if they have committed a felony in the past.

“None of these 10-year-old kids and 13-year-old kids wanted to be a gangbanger. They will be carrying guns to try and defend themselves. They are the product of our community, and we all share responsibility for that,” Key said.

Mitchell asked if a stiffer punishment could be given to kids with guns, especially in schools.

“What we’re asking, is there something that when these kids are caught with guns, can we at least try this and see if it makes a difference to adjudicate things? Have zero tolerance on guns, especially in schools,” Michell suggested. “I don’t want my grandchildren or anybody at school with anybody coming and gun even if he is just defending himself,” Mitchell asked.

Key indicated he doesn’t want a catch-all policy for kids with guns.

“It would be easy for me to say that every child who was found with a weapon on school property, I’m going to commit to this state. I’m going to give probation. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. …  But that’s not the way to do it. Because one kid who brings a weapon to school on school property for self-protection, and one who brings it on school property for something else are different kids. Every case is different,” Key said.

“It might be the right thing to do to lock a kid up for 30 days, short term. But now that kid is in the [youth detention center] with gangbangers, with more serious offenders, and it changes their lives. Long term it likely makes it a challenge greater for this community, than if we had not sent the child to the facility in the first place,” Key said.

“There are there are no magic wands that we can wave to correct all of this. There is nothing that the court system can do to correct this. There’s nothing that the police officers and the sheriff can do to correct this. All we can do is try our best to do what we can as a city,” Edmondson said.