WTVM Special Report: Charged as Adults

WTVM Special Report: Charged as Adults

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Georgia teens who commit the seven deadly sins face hefty penalties.

Senate Bill 440 allows the state to prosecute children ages 13 to 17 in Superior Court.

News Leader 9's Roslyn Giles talks one on one with an ex-convict in our special report "Juveniles Charged as Adults."

Teens serving time is a harsh reality for many.

"I got in fights, I got stabbed, I got stabbed 9 times with a pen," said Jerome Lawson.

Lawson went to prison back in the 1990's at a young age.

"I was 16 when I went in around grown men," Lawson said.

Growing up in Columbus, Lawson didn't have a chance. He says his mother did drugs and his father sold drugs.

"I was accustomed to that and that's what I thought life was and so after selling drugs for so long, I took a loss as they would say," Lawson said. "I got some fake drugs and in order to get that money back, I figured I'd rob a store."

Lawson came to court just one month after the state passed a new law requiring offenders to serve a mandatory 10 years in prison for committing a serious violent crime.

"I was kind of like in shock, but nobody knew it but me...standing around it's like you're getting up at a certain time, you using the bathroom while somebody is next to you looking at you and you're having to lose all comfort," Lawson said.

Lawson's armed robbery is among the 225 cases prosecuted in Columbus under Senate Bill 440 since it passed in 1994.

District Attorney Julia Slater says when juveniles are charged as adults--there's one focus.

"In Superior Court we are concentrating a lot on protecting the community from people who we think are a danger to the community and certainly punishing people," Slater said.

Crimes like murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated child molestation can carry sentences of 10 to 20 years and even life in some cases.

But how do you keep children on the straight and narrow? Lawson says it starts at home with good parenting, something he didn't have.

"There's different alternatives...something is wrong, why did they do this, It's something wrong when you have a teenager in court and there are no parents there...something's wrong," Lawson said.

That first brush with the law ends up in Juvenile Court.

"We try to rehabilitate the child, try to send them on another path so they can become productive citizens," said Danielle Forte, Assistant District Attorney for Juvenile Justice.

Programs like intensive family intervention, multi systemic therapy, functional family therapy and home based sessions are all available for youthful offenders.

"As with anything, if the child does not want to be turned around, it is not going to work, but if we have a child that is willing and receptive and sometimes that's a struggle but if they're willing and receptive, we do have a turnaround," Forte said.

Another option that's a proven success is Muscogee County's Juvenile Drug Court Program.

In March, News Leader 9 attended this graduation ceremony. Nine juvenile delinquents who were headed in the wrong direction stayed clean and completed the program.

"It lasts about a year, and it's voluntary but once they're in they're in and the get their record expunged at the end of the program," said Judge Warner Kennon.

Juvenile intervention programs are being implemented across the river in Alabama. Last November, Social worker and Pittsview native Tiesha Williams started a program called "We Have a Purpose."

"Not only do youth but we as adults have a purpose as well and that's to help youth make sound decisions," Williams said.

Williams spends her spare time mentoring teen first offenders in Russell County. She got the idea from a similar program in Florida.  As a graduate of Florida A&M, she wanted to give back to her community. Now with the judge's support, she's doing just that.

"I pushed the teacher and the teacher almost fell down the stairs," said Ja'Mya Lewis. "They put me in handcuffs and put me out of school."

Lewis was fighting another student at school when she turned on the teacher for trying to break up the brawl.

The probation office referred Lewis to "We have a Purpose." instead of sending before a judge, avoiding a criminal record.

"As she begin to do her anger management session and her and I were working more closely together, they begin to see a difference in her and allowed her to stay in school," Williams said.

Lewis is a homebound student looking forward to returning to school in August in the eighth grade.

"Hurt people hurt people... so you don't know what they're going through at home or in the community," Williams said. "It used to be it takes a village to raise a child, now in today's society, the village is no longer there, no one wants to raise the kids, you have kids raising kids."

Just like Williams, Lawson and the juvenile court systems are working to give troubled youth a new lease on life.

Lawson is now an ordained minister and makes jail visits and mentors youth, hoping to reach as many teens as possible so they don't have to go down the same path that led him to prison.

Currently 180 juveniles are in the correctional system under Senate Bill 440. Ten are housed in Columbus at the Aaron Cohn Regional Youth Detention Center.

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