By John Prevost and Chris Newman
They came to be known in Grant Park as the “scooter boys:” three males under the age of seventeen, riding electric scooters, breaking into vehicles, and brandishing a gun from time to time when approached by anyone trying to intervene. One of us heard the loud pop of a gunshot fired to warn off a good citizen as the scooter boys broke into a car. They then flew by on their scooters. Although the cumulative property damage they caused was significant, fortunately no one was shot or injured before they were arrested.
Due to their young ages, we do not know the outcomes of these individuals’ arrests — whether they were held in detention or found to be “delinquent” (the term used in juvenile court instead of guilty). The scooter boys represent what may (or may not) be a troubling trend of increasing crime by children, legally defined as anyone not yet seventeen years of age. We know that local news and social media are often dominated by the latest crimes, while neighbors post home videos of thefts, car break-ins, and even some of the scooter boys’ escapades. Subscribers to the Nextdoor app receive an almost-daily reporting from neighbors posting videos and narratives of suspected criminal activity. Surely, all this must mean the crime rate is increasing, right?
The fact is, more visibility of crime is not necessarily associated with an actual increase in criminal activity. This applies to crimes committed by both children and adults. In contrast to what little is known about crime by juveniles, the media is full of details about crimes committed by adults, as well as their court outcomes. We know (or could find out) conviction offenses, sentence lengths, and who went to prison or received probation. By contrast, Georgia’s juvenile courts are prohibited from revealing the identities of any youth referred to the court or the circumstances of any juvenile person’s case. When youths leave the juvenile justice system, their records are sealed and unavailable to the public. An employer conducting a criminal history search will not find a juvenile record. The law is designed to shield adults from the negative consequences of their (hopefully) now-past impulsive and irrational decisions. When such an adult later applies to the military, to college, or when seeking employment or entry into a profession, their transgressions as a child will not haunt them.
Juvenile courts are not required to withhold from the public everything about their work. For example, the juvenile court could report how much crime and what kinds of crimes are committed by anyone under seventeen. Police departments cannot release the names and identities of juvenile arrestees but can and do reveal ages and genders. The juvenile courts can legally release much more data such as aggregate success rates of youths under supervision, and caseload sizes of juvenile probation officers.
The scooter boys’ escapades and other criminal activity highlight the importance of helping citizens understand the court’s work. This necessarily includes informative measures of performance and effectiveness. Protecting the identities of children is important and necessary, as is routinely providing information to the citizens who fund these vital services through their taxpayer dollars. The GPNA Public Safety Committee’s attempts to engage the court continues as it also engages the Atlanta Police Department, PAD (Policing Alternatives and Diversion), and other law enforcement and justice-serving agencies. Our next article will provide information on the intersection of Atlanta’s schools and the juvenile court.
Note: The GPNA Public Safety Committee seeks to understand and educate itself and our neighbors on the various players in the criminal justice system to identify how we can advocate for the right resources and for system improvements. We advocate for openness in sharing information about agencies’ resources, operations, staffing, workload, and effectiveness. Previous articles reported on the courts, probation, and most recently, on Policing Alternatives and Diversion (PAD).
John Prevost is an Instructor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University. Chris Newman is the Chair of the GPNA Public Safety Committee.