Joint Appropriations Committee Hears From New DJJ Commissioner

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The harsh realities of the new year’s budget woes continue to sink in for Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) brass. Newly appointed Commissioner Amy Howell has formally presented her concerns and suggestions about the agency’s inevitable revenue slashes to members of the House and Senate appropriations committee.

In a 20-minute budget hearings presentation Wednesday Howell, a former DJJ deputy commissioner, outlined the agency’s structure, highlighted challenges that further budgets cuts could impose and emphasized the critical role that legislative support would play in helping the agency continue to fulfill its mission. In his first state-of the-state address last week, new Governor Nathan Deal proposed cutting all agency budgets by four percent on average during the rest of the fiscal year ending in June and another seven percent during fiscal 2012.

“We’re very cognizant of the incredible difficult economic times that the state is facing and we know that these difficulties are across the board for all agencies,” says DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “But we also want to make sure that we are serving the youth in our care. We are a public safety agency, but we are also an agency that is charged with serving youth. We’re going to have to get some legislative support to allow us to do what we need to do.”

Howell emphasized in her report that the steadily shrinking supply of detention beds should be reserved mostly for high-risk offenders and urged for more sentencing flexibility that would allow more low-risk youths to be monitored closely from home.

Among the strategies Howell proposed in her presentation include:

  • Approve legislation that would allow juvenile court judges to modify the mandatory minimum sentences for designated felons who have demonstrated that he or she has been rehabilitated and who has successfully completed all educational and program requirements. “The minimum is 12 months now and this would allow that to be changed to six to 60 months,” says Moore. “This would allow the judges greater discretion with each individual case. This would be considered in the case of a kid who has done everything he was supposed to do; he’s gotten his GED or vocational training or certificate. He has done all he needed to do. This would give the judges discretion to allow that child to leave earlier. A judge, for example, might put him on probation.”
  • Close two 30-bed Regional Youth Development Centers (RYDCs). “We’re not sure which ones right now,” adds Moore. “We initially had some on the list but those are currently being evaluated. We are analyzing population data and the utilization rates; how often is that facility used by that particular county. These short term strategies will allow us to better manage population.”
  • Legislate the use of a Detention Assessment Instrument (DAI), an assessment tool that provides judges with objective information about a youth to determine whether he or she should or should not be detained. “It’s not required now, but we are proposing that it should be,” says Moore. “It’s an assessment tool for judges.”

  • Maintain a hiring freeze that would leave the current 49 vacancies unfilled.

  • Eliminate paid overtime for employees.

  • Eliminate 11 administrative positions.
  • Eliminate 11 education positions. “This means class sizes would change in the RYDCs,” notes Moore.

The proposed cuts come on the heels of an especially daunting few years for DJJ. Last year alone, the state agency of some 4,300 employees who oversee about 20,000 youngsters, lost 344 detention center beds. “Macon YDC [Youth Detention Centers] decreased its number of beds by 44,” she says. “We lost 300 more beds at Bill Ireland [YDC] last year after we closed it.”

Since fiscal year 2009, according to Moore, DJJ has:

  • Slashed $76.5 million from its coffers, roughly 23.5 percent of its budget. “Eighty-eight percent of those cuts came from personal services and service benefits to children,” she says.
  • Cut its workforce by 623 employees.

Legislators will get to vote on the proposed budget, before it goes back to Governor Deal.

“We don’t want to sound like we’re complaining; we know that all agencies are experiencing this, but as an agency that serves children we have some major concerns,” Moore says. “We have to come up with strategies that will allow us to meet our goals. We don’t want to get caught up with another MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] from the Justice Department. We need to make sure that we are making policy decisions that are real and don’t impact the services we provide.”

Adds Moore: “Any further reduction of beds may create overcrowding [in detention centers]. It could threaten our compliance with the MOA and our ability to deliver on our Constitutional requirements.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

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