How fear, politics forged Georgia’s punitive juvenile laws

On a January morning in 1994, Gov. Zell Miller stood before the Georgia General Assembly to deliver his fourth State of the State address. And maybe his last.

In less than 10 months, Miller would stand for reelection, and his prospects looked bleak. A lifelong Democrat, Miller was running into a Republican tide washing over the South. Worse, polls showed Miller’s unfavorable ratings had more than doubled in three years as Georgians grew more fearful of violent crime, especially the brazen acts of juvenile offenders.

Miller leaned into the fear. In the State of the State, Georgia became a dystopia under siege, imperiled by teenage lawbreakers whom Miller described in language that today would be considered, at best, racially coded: punks, hoodlums and thugs.

“These are not the Cleaver kids soaping up some windows,” Miller said. “These are middle school kids conspiring to hurt their teacher, teenagers shooting people and committing rapes, young thugs terrorizing whole neighborhoods — and then showing no remorse when they get caught.”

» PART 1: Deadly consequences: Murder case exposes a system's failings

» PART 3: Georgia’s juvenile prisons: Assaults by guards, strip searches, chaos

Legislators responded that winter with a sweeping rewrite of the state’s juvenile justice laws. Children as young as 13 would be prosecuted as adults for certain crimes, dubbed “deadly sins.” Teenagers could spend decades behind bars — or, in extreme cases, the rest of their lives.

As Miller put it in another speech: “Tough medicine for a tough disease.”

The origin story of Georgia’s modern juvenile justice system shows how electoral politics and inflamed public passions converged to create the nation’s harshest laws governing young offenders. Twenty-five years later, Georgia is one of just three states that still treat 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. It is one of 18 that allow the solitary confinement of juveniles and the use of shackles on youths when they appear in court. It is one of five that require adult prosecution of 13-year-olds for certain crimes, taking the decision out of a judge’s hands.

But Miller’s creation failed to deliver on its central promise, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Juveniles today commit roughly the same proportion of Georgia’s violent crimes as they did before the 1994 law took effect. And those who receive the toughest punishment are the most likely to commit additional crimes after they are released.

The 1994 laws were “politically expedient in the face of contradictory research,” said Edwin Risler, a professor emeritus in the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work and a former chairman of the state juvenile justice board. “Before the law and after the law, the rates (of juvenile crime) stayed the same. It had a negligible effect.”

Tracy Graham-Lawson, a former district attorney and juvenile court judge in Clayton County, put it more bluntly: “We’re not getting a better human being out at the other end.”

» RELATED: 'Second Chance Court' shows promising results

In 1994, however, few lawmakers seemed to anticipate the consequences of Miller’s proposal. Even fewer dared publicly criticize it.

When the bill came up for a final vote in the House, only Rep. Denmark Groover, a Democrat from Macon first elected in 1952 and serving in what would be his last term, spoke in opposition.

“Are we dedicated here today to the idea that someone who commits the first crime is irreparably beyond redemption?” Groover asked his colleagues. The legislation, he said, did nothing to address “the root problem of despair that is out there.”

He added: “You are creating an animal.”

State Rep. Denmark Groover, seen here in 1991, spoke against then-Gov. Zell Miller’s juvenile justice bill in 1994. Groover, from Macon, died in 2001. (Nick Arroyo/AJC file)


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Soft on crime

The extent to which Miller, who died in 2018, considered crime a political liability for his reelection emerges from the late governor’s papers at UGA’s Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.

A thick folder contains newspaper clippings about crimes committed by former Georgia inmates, both adults and juveniles, who were released during Miller’s first term.

Its label: “Potential Willie Hortons.”

The file name refers to William Horton, a convicted murderer who ran away while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison in the 1980s. He later raped and robbed a woman and assaulted her boyfriend in Maryland. Assigned the nickname “Willie” by Republican political strategists, Horton was featured in a television ad supporting Vice President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat whose administration oversaw the furlough program. The ad lingered on a picture of Horton — dark-skinned, with an unkempt Afro and a thick beard — while depicting Dukakis as soft on crime.

It was a devastating smear, one that Miller was determined to guard against six years later.

Rick Dent, seen here in 2006, was Gov. Zell Miller's press secretary in 1994. "Society was fed up with the revolving door," Dent said in a recent interview, but "there was no way anyone could ever say Zell Miller was soft on crime." (JOHN SPINK/AJC staff)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

“Society was fed up with the revolving door,” Rick Dent, Miller’s press secretary in 1994, said in a recent interview. But with the sharp tone of the governor’s rhetoric, Dent said, “there was no way anyone could ever say Zell Miller was soft on crime.”

Early in his tenure, Miller took a more progressive approach. In 1992, he put the state’s juvenile justice agency in the hands of George Napper, Atlanta’s first African American police chief, who believed most young offenders needed counseling and treatment as much as punishment.

Miller quickly soured on Napper, however. As the 1994 election neared, Napper approved the release of an 11-year-old accused rapist after 19 days in custody. After a media-fueled public backlash, an angry Miller pushed Napper out of the job.

George Napper, seen here in 1992, led Georgia's juvenile justice agency from 1992 to 1994. He favored counseling and treatment over punishment of young offenders, but Gov. Zell Miller soured on his leadership.  (Kimberly Smith / AJC file)

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“We’ve got to get tough with tough kids,” Miller said. “That has not penetrated to that department.”

Napper recently declined to comment. “I’m old,” he said. “Thank you for calling.”

But as he left the juvenile justice job in 1994, Napper said of Miller: “My only hope is he will have some vision, that he will understand that being tough is not the same thing as being effective.”

‘I don’t give a damn’

Miller promoted his juvenile justice plan by stoking every parent’s worst fear.

“I am afraid that in the not-too-distant future,” he said in late 1993, “we will know that school has started when we hear the sound of gunshots and will measure the pace of the school year by the deaths of students.”

His answer: separate teenage criminals from society.

“These are tough hoodlums; they require tough measures,” he said. “These are adult crimes; they deserve adult treatment.”

The bill that Miller sent to lawmakers clearly made rehabilitation secondary to punishment.

For teens as young as 13, any violent felony would result in at least five years in a juvenile prison. Each of the so-called deadly sins — armed robbery, murder or aggravated child molestation, for example — would carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 to 30 years. Youths would be held in a juvenile prison only until they turned 17; after that, they would complete their terms in adult prisons.

Then-Gov Zell Miller gets an enthusiastic greeting from Georgia lawmakers before his State of the State address in 1991. In his address three years later, the governor promised a crackdown on teen lawbreakers, who he called punks, hoodlums and thugs. AJC File Photo

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Miller added one more provision that he called “two strikes and you’re out.” No matter the offender’s age, a second conviction for one of the deadly sins called for a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. (The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that mandatory life sentences with no parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.) Dent, the former press secretary, recalled Miller’s retort when someone reminded him that baseball allows three strikes: “Crime ain’t baseball.”

Miller was motivated, Dent said, not by racial bias but by the belief that the nature of juvenile crime had changed, regardless of the offenders’ race.

“You always search for that perfect combination of good public policy that’s also good politics,” Dent said. “We did it because it was good policy. We also knew it would be very popular.”

From the start, Miller was dismissive of any suggestion that his approach went too far.

“Nobody can tell me from some ivory tower that you take a kid, you kick him in the rear end, and it doesn’t do any good,” he told The New York Times. “And I don’t give a damn what they say, we’re going to continue to do it in Georgia.”

Many states adopted tough measures after criminologist John J. Dilulio Jr.'s article in The Weekly Standard in 1995 called "The Coming of the Super-Predators."

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Miller put Georgia at the forefront of a national movement that was dropping the hammer on teenage offenders. Congress targeted violent youths in its 1994 crime bill, and many other states adopted tough measures after the criminologist John J. DiIulio Jr. published an article in The Weekly Standard in 1995 called “The Coming of the Super-Predators.”

DiIulio decried a generation of “fatherless, Godless and jobless” teens whose numbers, he said, were growing fast. Another criminologist, James A. Fox, predicted a “bloodbath of teenage violence” within a decade. Hillary Clinton, campaigning for her husband’s reelection in 1996, said the root causes of young criminals’ behavior could be debated, “but first, we have to bring them to heel.”

Already, though, a surge of violent crime by juveniles had ebbed, FBI statistics show. Both DiIulio and Fox later disavowed their grim forecasts. Clinton apologized for her 20-year-old remarks when she ran for president in 2016.

In the years since the superpredator myth imploded, many states have reconsidered their harsh juvenile laws. California no longer allows children younger than 16 to be charged as adults. Louisiana banned the use of shackles for juveniles appearing in court. New York, North Carolina, Missouri and others stopped treating juveniles younger than 18 as adults. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia banned life sentences without parole for juveniles.

Just in one two-year period recently, 19 states imposed new restrictions on prosecuting children as adults.

Georgia was not among them.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller stands by as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno speaks in 1998 about a consent agreement to improve dangerous conditions in the state's juvenile justice system. AJC FILES


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A tarnished prize

Miller narrowly won reelection in November 1994, defeating Republican Guy Millner by 32,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast. When he left office four years later, Miller “firmly believed” in the tougher juvenile laws he had championed, Dent said.

But by then, Miller’s prized juvenile justice system was tarnished.

The U.S. Justice Department announced in February 1998 that it had found “a pattern of egregious conditions” in Georgia’s juvenile detention facilities that violated the rights of incarcerated youths.

Juvenile jails and prisons were dangerously overcrowded; in some facilities, five boys lived in cells built for one. Fights and sexual assaults were common. Guards and other staff physically abused prisoners. Mentally ill teens often were held in mechanical restraints or numbed by psychotropic drugs.

In a lawsuit based on the investigation, federal officials laid much of the blame directly on Miller’s crackdown on juvenile crime.

Miller was enraged — not as much by the government’s findings as by the fact that authorities shared them with the news media before notifying him. Miller fired off a letter to the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, challenging the official’s “fitness” and ominously noting that he needed Senate confirmation to keep his job.

“I am appalled that a letter from the Justice Department written to a governor would find its way into a local newspaper before the governor actually receives it,” Miller wrote.

Miller even took his complaints to the White House, asking both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to step in.

A month later, however, Miller signed a consent agreement that settled the lawsuit and averted a federal takeover of Georgia’s juvenile system. The state agreed to pay an independent monitor to oversee compliance and promised to hire additional teachers, guards and medical staff for the youth facilities.

The federal oversight continued until 2009.

Miller announced the settlement on March 18, 1998, in his final months as governor. With federal officials, including U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, at his side in the state Capitol, Miller said the agreement let Georgia continue to “determine its own philosophy in dealing with juvenile justice, a philosophy based on tough love and discipline.”

Even in defeat, Miller maintained that his way had been the right way all along.