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Cruelty to Children in the First Degree

| Dec 1, 2015 | Crime Of Cruelty, Firm News |


In Georgia, there are several crimes whose severity is measured in degrees. For example, forgery in the first degree is more severe that forgery in the second degree. Cruelty to children is another crime that is defined in three different ways or degrees. Cruelty to children in the first degree is the most severe of the three. Today, I’m going to explain the definition of this crime and talk about some of the common ways I’ve seen people charged with first degree cruelty to children.

O.C.G.A. § 16-5-70(a) states that a parent, guardian, or other person supervising the welfare of or having immediate custody of a child under the age of 18 years commits cruelty to children in the first degree when that person willfully deprives the child of necessary sustenance to the extent that the child’s health or well-being is jeopardized. Subsection (b) of this code section states that a person commits cruelty to children in the first degree when that person maliciously causes a child under the age of 18 cruel or excessive physical or mental pain. If a person is convicted of first degree cruelty to children, then that person faces a sentence of not less than 5 years nor more than 20 years in prison.

The first element I want to point out in this statute is the age that defines a “child.” Whereas the age of consent for sex in Georgia is 16 years old, the Legislature has defined a child in this statute as a person under 18 years of age. I only point this out to say that the Georgia Code defines a “child” and/or a “minor” in different ways depending on the statute.

Secondly, please notice that it’s not just a parent that can be charged with cruelty to children. The statute extends to people “supervising the welfare” of a child. This means individuals such as camp counselors or school teachers or day care workers could arguably be charged with this crime if they did not provide necessary sustenance to children. In other words, a person with supervisory authority over a child must ensure that the child is being properly feed.

Finally, notice the breadth of the definition of first degree cruelty. “Cruel or excessive physical or mental pain” is a definition that is typically left up to a jury to decide. Typical examples I’ve seen prosecuted in this circuit include shaken babies, children that have receive broken bones and children that have been placed in scalding bath water. Those examples are fairly obvious in determining that the child suffered excessive physical or mental pain. But what about a case where a parent whips a child with a belt? Is that inflicting cruel or excessive pain? Several generations ago the answer would likely have been a resounding “no.” The scenario might be different, however, if a parent strikes their child with a light cord or the buckle of a belt. I have seen those types of cases prosecuted.

Cruelty to children in the first degree is one of the most serious crimes a person can face. I write this today so people can make themselves aware of the fine line between the legitimate discipline of a child and a crime. If you are facing this charge, then please contact a criminal defense attorney for help.

Jeffrey E. Johnston is a local attorney licensed to practice in Georgia. His practice focuses primarily on Criminal Defense and Personal Injury law. His law firm can be reached at (706) 869-8171 or by completing our contact form here.