The man who Governor Sonny Perdue tapped seven months ago to serve as Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner is leaving his post after only seven months on the job. Garland Hunt officially departs this week following Governor-Elect Nathan Deal’s decision last month to name DJJ Deputy Commissioner Amy Howell in his place. Hunt is a lawyer, an ordained minister and co-pastor of the Father’s House church in Norcross, and a corrections industry veteran. He spoke to JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas about his brief tenure overseeing a state agency with some 4,300 employees who are charged with monitoring and caring for some 20,000 youngsters.
Many people were surprised to see you replaced after such a short time in the position. How do you feel about the decision?
As I stated in the letter I sent to the staff, I certainly regret not being appointed to the position but I respect the governor-to-be’s appointment. He has a right to select the person he wants for the position. This is a post that is at the pleasure of the governor; that comes with the job. Even I was appointed at the pleasure of the governor [Perdue]. I certainly have enjoyed working with the DJJ family; it’s a great team. I really, really enjoyed getting to know the team during my seven months here. I came in with a history with the adult system so the juvenile system was a good challenge for me. A lot of things are the same and there are also a lot of differences. This was a great opportunity for me to learn about the juvenile justice system. Being new to this area allowed me to have a fresh perspective of the agency, especially with it coming out of the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement regarding United States Department of Justice monitoring of DJJ facilities). I felt that there definitely needed to be a fresh start. One of my biggest priorities was ensuring that the youth we serve received the proper rehabilitation and treatment. I wanted to make sure that when they leave us they would have received the best services.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments over your brief but busy tenure?
I developed a sincere love for the kids that we serve although many of them are considered the worse of the worse. I wanted to provide them with hope in their success. I wanted to provide them with the opportunity to receive the best treatment. I know that we, as an agency, have done well with providing great behavioral and mental health services. We also do a really good job with education. The fact that we have been recommended for accreditation with SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and the Corrections Education Association is a testament to that fact. I was very proud to be at the helm of the organization when it was receiving that. I believe that we have excellent educators who provide very well for our kids. Many of our kids receive their diplomas, GED (General Equivalency Diploma) or Work Ready Certificates.
Are there some other specific goals or areas of interest you had hoped to explore that are now being cut short by your departure?
One area I was really interested in was providing evidenced-based programming for our kids. Evidence-based programs look at the results of what you do to determine whether it is successful or not. As opposed to just teaching something, the job is not complete until you have data on the results. Our kids have to have attention given to them outside of the classroom. When you don’t provide the best programming some things begin to unravel. I really wanted to make sure the children we serve receive the best programming.
Any other goals for which you feel especially proud to have accomplished during your term?
The first priorities were providing the best services for the children and boosting the morale of the staff. The second thing was ensuring safety and security at the facilities. Some of our facilities are very secure; the incident reports of youth on youth or youth on staff are under control, but we had some facilities that, quite frankly, I was concerned about. I paid a lot of attention to those, especially Eastman. I had some concerns so we put a lot of focus on it in an effort to move that facility forward to ensure the safety of our staff and students there.
There’s a lot of debate about how children who break the law should be treated. What do you think?
The staff has to be driven by something more than just administrative duties. There has to be a sense of purpose when you are working with troubled youth from the commissioner down to the JCOs (Juvenile Correctional Officers). You’ve got to have a love and a passion for their futures. If you’re in this type of job just for the administrative duties and for a paycheck, you will soon burn out. You have to really care for the children.
You speak of caring for the children and providing for them, but the reality is that DJJ’s budget has been slashed by more than 20 percent over the past few years and more cuts are inevitable this year. Are you concerned about how this will affect the agency overall and the children it serves?
It is very, very unfortunate for the agency and most importantly for our youths, especially because if often causes us not to provide all that we should provide for them. Reducing the staff more impacts our ability to provide programs and more secure beds. On the positive side it has forced us to do more collaborative work with the staff. We all have to be stakeholders to ensure that the right kids come to us; the high-risk, violent kids as opposed to filling our facilities up with low-risk kids or status offenders.
The governor-elect will soon be making the decision on what further cuts DJJ will face. Are you concerned about what the impact will be for the agency?
I have great confidence in the staff (that) we have, to do everything to ensure that the children receive the services that they need. I can’t say that will always be the case if we continue to eliminate staff and then are expected to deliver on the same level. I know that all agencies are being impacted, but because our agency is one that deals with children. I’d really regret it if there would be any loss of jobs or depreciation or loss of services. That’s why I chose to focus a lot on the staff. I believe that is so important for a state agency where workers have not received raises or cost of living increases for many years; and one where many people for the most part are underpaid. It is important for a commissioner to value them and support them. Morale is so important. That’s why I felt it was so important to engage and interact with the staff as a whole and, in some cases, individually. I tried to encourage them and get to know them and their duties.
Do any other important milestones from your tenure come to mind?
I think I began to see a lot of hope in the hearts of the kids we serve. I really encouraged respect with the staff. You have to treat [the kids] as human beings. We began to see that the more we treated them with respect the more they began to respect the staff. I also saw a lot of changes within the staff too. I began to see them experience more excitement about the [DJJ] leadership, coming to work and their jobs in general. It’s not that they weren’t necessarily excited about the leadership before me, but my goal was to keep them excited. The SACS accreditation was a major highlight. It was two years of preparation. We were also able to make headway with some facilities where we’ve had difficulties, such as Eastman. We had a lot more challenges with that facility because it holds a lot of high-risk offenders who’ve had more incidents in the system. Some of them come from more violent backgrounds, which is probably why we've had more challenges there.
What’s your advice for incoming commissioner Howell?
Just stay the course. She is a woman of wisdom and determination. She is very strong and ambitious. I know she will do a great job.
Do you have any advice to her regarding issues that you think she should focus on in her term?
She’s been with the agency for more than five years. I’m sure she will be able to set her own priorities.
Now that this chapter is closing, what lies ahead for you?
I don’t know exactly what my next step is, but I have great belief in the Lord ordering our steps. I believe he has a bigger assignment for me and I look forward to finding out what that is. Right now I am entertaining some options, but I am not at liberty to say what those are at this time. I believe in my scriptures, of course, to ‘trust in the Lord and he will direct your path.’ I believe that he directed me here for seven months and I trust that he feels that I faithfully served the agency, the staff and most importantly the youth in our care.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.