Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed 2013 budget for juvenile justice, after three years of deep cuts, could bring spending a bit nearer to 2009 levels, state officials say.
Deal's spending priorities, though, reflect a harsh trend inside Georgia's youth prisons. They house a much different population -- older, more violent and much more difficult to manage -- than they did just a few years ago.
"We certainly find them more volatile and more physically demanding," said Jeff Minor, Georgia’s deputy juvenile justice commissioner.
The trend was underscored last year when disturbances at youth detention facilities in DeKalb and Dodge counties could only be quelled with the aid of state and local police. The violence culminated in November when a 19-year-old was beaten to death at the state's Augusta Youth Development Campus. A 17-year-old was charged with murder in the incident.
The Augusta incident led to the firings of the center's director and several staffers and helped lead to the appointment of a former GBI agent and parole board member as commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Georgia's highest-security facilities for juveniles now house violent and sex offenders almost exclusively. The number of so-called "designated felons" in the YDC population has more than doubled in a decade, climbing from 349 on an average day in 2000 to 718 last year. They're older, too, with youths 18 and older making up nearly 38 percent of the YDC population, up from just 7.3 percent in 2000.
The trend has had a ripple effect on other DJJ programs, as other designated felons who are awaiting placement are housed in less-secure detention facilities alongside juveniles accused of non-violent offenses. "Kids are tougher at every stop," Minor said.
Deal's 2013 proposal, unveiled last week, calls for a $15.4 million uptick in spending after the department's budget had been slashed by $57 million since 2009. Two line items would target the tougher, older population of youthful offenders:
- $1 million to create two 12-member Security Management and Response Teams, or SMART). Members would be trained for emergency response but would also be available to shake down juveniles’ cells for weapons and contraband, review security policies and perform other duties.
- $7.7 million to open a new 80-bed youth prison in south Fulton County, the first to be located in north Georgia. DJJ had retrofitted an old detention facility for adult probationers, but had to wait for the economy to start to turn around before asking for the money to operate it.
DJJ also hopes to invest in new community-based programs for less serious offenders, including an additional $576,000 for 60 slots in new Evening Reporting Centers, which would offer structured programs such as counseling, tutoring and anger management, and $2.7 million for 50 residential beds at wilderness camps.
Juvenile justice officials say they hope Deal's budget signals an end to forced cuts that have eliminated 862 jobs and more than 900 beds for juvenile offenders in recent years.
The governor's proposals "help us get our feet under us," Minor said. Over the last few years, "we feel like we've been knocked pretty hard."
Georgia legislators will begin considering Deal's proposals Wednesday afternoon, when new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner testifies before the joint House and Senate appropriations committees.