Georgia’s DJJ boss tells state lawmakers that his department must be transformed to handle the burdens a class of inmates that’s older and more violent, and high employee turnover and low morale, just as the governor pushes a large package of reforms.
For the sake of the safety of inmates, staff and the public, “we must change the culture of the juvenile justice system,” said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles, at state budget hearings on Jan. 23. His fix involves a “realistic approach” and embracing options that include both sanctions and rehabilitation.
“I’ve made this a top priority,” said Niles, who has been in office since the beginning of November.
The average young person in DJJ custody is older, more aggressive and staying longer than a decade ago. So-called “designated felons” — youth convicted of the most serious crimes — are usually prioritized for DJJ’s scarce bed space over less-risky kids.
Indeed, some serious offenders spend five to 12 months in facilities designed for short stays.
“These are youth that should have been in YDC beds,” said Avery, referring to the Youth Development Campuses designed for longer-term sentences.
And some less-risky youth who would be better served in community programs are in custody too. “There are limited community resources in areas of this state,” Avery said.
DJJ oversees nearly 12,000 youth in the community and almost 1,750 in custody.
But about half of DJJ’s youth corrections officers — 803 people — left last year. Avery blamed it on low pay, along with stressful, challenging, difficult work conditions.
“High turnover increases staff stress,” said Avery. “In other words, turmoil creates turmoil.”
But an overhaul to his system is in the works. Gov. Nathan Deal is urging the state Legislature to pass a package of reforms that would see more youth treated in community programs, not put inside the wire.
The bill, which has yet to be filed, would offer communities a piece of a $5 million appropriation if they set up proven, workable, more affordable youth treatment programs locally.
It will recommend Georgia “use less confinement and more community-based options,” Deal said at state budget hearings on Jan. 22. Such a policy “requires that we put some money out there in order for communities to have the assets and available resources to do the community-based services and the alternatives that juvenile court judges will need.”
Besides that, the governor’s draft budget for the fiscal year beginning in July recommends an additional $4.8 million to open the new Rockdale Regional Youth Detention Center and open a new 30-bed Youth Development Campus.
That Campus will be the home of the most aggressive, disruptive youth.
“We want to get those who are really the ones causing the most trouble in our YDCs out of the regular YDCs and put them in a more confined status,” said Deal, “so that they do not continue to create problems for other young people who are more accepting … of rehabilitation.”
Deal’s draft budget for next year is not as tough on the DJJ as on some other agencies, which saw budget cuts. Not including federal spending, Deal recommends $301 million for DJJ for next fiscal year, up from $300 budgeted for this year.
The state House and Senate will consider Deal’s draft budget and make edits. Lawmakers must pass a balanced budget by the time the session adjourns for the year, probably in April.
Photo by Maggie Lee