By Bill Hendrick
Garland Hunt plans to rely on the Good Book as much as his law books for guidance in his goal of keeping thousands of juveniles who’ve run afoul of the law from graduating into Georgia’s criminal justice system for adults. Instead, Hunt, the new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, is determined to see as many of them as possible graduate from the DJJ’s school system, with either high school diplomas or GED certificates.
Besides being commissioner of the department, Hunt, 51, is also a lawyer, a minister, a father and a school superintendent, because the Department of Juvenile Justice operates a huge school system of its own, complete with a school board.
And as commissioner, he’s also superintendent of schools.
And as commissioner, he’s also CEO.
It’s a daunting task.
He is responsible for overseeing a department with some 4,300 employees who are charged with keeping tabs on, straightening out and guiding upwards of 20,000 youngsters whose lives have led them down the road of crime, which for many seemed as if it was the only route open. About 12 percent of them are incarcerated, and the rest are living under the watchful eyes and supervision of social and case workers.
Hunt, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Howard University in Washington, is no stranger to dealing with the underbelly or underprivileged of society, or interacting with men and women who have broken the law. He served as a member of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles from 2004 to earlier this year, and was chairman from 2006 to 2008. An ordained minister, who is co-pastor of the 200-member Father’s House church in Norcross, Hunt is a deeply religious man who feels he was “divinely called” both to be a lawyer and a pastor.
“I knew before law school that there was a divine call,” he said. “Law was always a part of that. I chose law because I could represent people who could not help themselves. Religion led me into law, and my beliefs lead me every day.”
Both jobs require living by rules, a moral code, and also the ability to be both coldly analytical and hotly passionate about issues confronting justice, Georgians, and especially young people, whom Hunt, the father of three, said he loves.
His own children, under the guidance of Hunt and his wife of 25 years, Eileen, have already achieved a measure of success in life. Son Garland Hunt Jr., 21, recently graduated from the University of Southern California with joint degrees in business and cinema arts. Daughter Christa is a freshman studying child psychology at the University of Florida. His youngest child, Jeremy, was president of the student government at Northview High School and hopes to garner an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Though his children grew up in a home of privilege, Hunt, who lives in Alpharetta, sees no reason why the thousands of youngsters for whom he is responsible can’t become successful, too, despite the circumstances that led them into the Juvenile Justice system.
“All children need a chance, deserve a chance, and I am determined they will all have the opportunity to achieve success in life,” Hunt said. “I pray for them every day. My priorities are to equip each child with tools of success through education, effective programs and strengthening character.”
Garland Hunt has little direct experience with the juvenile justice system, but comes to the job with an impressive resume. He is a member of the Georgia Bar Association, licensed to practice law in state and federal courts. He is vice president of Wellington Boone Ministries in Atlanta, an umbrella organization for several community-based initiatives, including outreach for college and high school students and athletes. He was president of the 2004 class of the Coverdell Leadership Institute, was appointed in 2004 as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Family Violence, and is vice president of the
Association of Paroling Authorities International. Last year, he received the Ben Baer Award for outstanding work nationally in the field of parole. As Chairman of the Parole Board, Hunt started a Faith Based Initiative in 2005 that recruits volunteers from the religious community to mentor prison parolees.
Hunt’s political ideology is a more complex picture. He grew up in a liberal home, troubled by the racial struggles his parents endured. In college, he embraced his Christian faith and started to explore new political ideals. He believes strongly in racial reconciliation, and wrote a book called “The Mandate: A Call to Biblical Unity.” He told Christianity.com, “our nation, as a whole, must do something about this incredible racial divide that still haunts us as we go about internationally and proclaim ourselves to be a nation of peace.”
That theme was part of a brief brush with politics in 2002. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he ran as a Republican from North Fulton County for a state House seat. Had he won, Hunt would have been Georgia’s first black Republican state legislator since Reconstruction.
Garland Hunt is a soft-spoken, clearly passionate and compassionate man who is determined to run a department that, in the past, has encountered problems, in an efficient way that will benefit troubled young people while at the same time keeping dangerous youth safely under control and under strict supervision to protect the citizens of the state. The economic troubles that have led to huge budget cuts have also affected the Department of Juvenile Justice, which Hunt said makes it much more difficult to help children who get in trouble, while protecting law abiding citizens at the same time. The Department’s budget was slashed by $47 million in 2009, and Hunt said DJJ “has reduced its budget due to the economic downturn, as is the case with all agencies.” Barring a major economic upturn, which would bolster state revenues, he said it will be tough to maintain the department’s far-flung staff and meet its obligations if more cuts are required. “We’ve closed a couple of facilities,” he said. “In the past two years, we’ve cut 400 jobs from the department, including many upper level managers. It is very difficult to keep programs, academic excellence and secure facilities with more cuts.” Still, as a former Parole Board member and chairman, he said he sees “the need to do everything we can to prevent the youth from graduating to the adult system.”
Hunt, who also served as a staff attorney in Richmond, Va., for the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, believes in the rule of law, and in strict adherence to the rules set down both in legal codes and in the Bible.
“In both, you are a shepherd,” Hunt said. “A pastor does the same thing as a lawyer. And I’ve always known this was the way. I made a personal commitment to Christ when I was in college. In public service, it’s not so much what you speak about, but it’s the way you see life. My faith tells me that all things are possible. As opposed to scrutinizing the kids and saying they will always be bad, always evil, you have to see them like God-graded them. No matter what a kid has done, there’s always the potential to save their lives. We need to show these kids a different way. We have to have hope that their lives can change.” Many, if not most, of the young people involved in the DJJ, “have never completed anything in their whole lives. We are hoping to change that.”
Gov. Sonny Perdue, who appointed Hunt to head the Department of Juvenile Justice earlier this year, said he was chosen because he had a stellar career on the Board of Pardons and Paroles and is dedicated to the rule of law, but even more to helping young people who find themselves in trouble. The commissioner’s post “is not an easy job, and leading the Department of Juvenile Justice will be a challenge as well,” Perdue said. “But I know that Garland’s love for Georgia and unwavering commitment to public safety make him the perfect person to take the reins of DJJ.”
Though it is a grim fact of life that troubled young people desperately need to be educated or trained for jobs, to prevent them from graduating into the adult criminal justice system, the task is becoming more difficult. The DJJ, under state law, operates as a special school district, which has the same powers, privileges and authority of other districts. The DJJ operates 28 schools, located at the 22 Regional Youth Detention Centers and six Youth Development campuses around the state. Each offender is also a student who receives 330 minutes of regular or special education instruction every day. So Hunt said he must be an adept educator, while also wearing the hats of an overseer of a huge criminal justice system, and as pastor not just of his own flock in Norcross but for all the thousands of young people in the state who need spiritual guidance.
He does not shrink from any of these responsibilities, and said he will do all in his power to make sure young offenders have a chance to earn a high school diploma, or a GED. “It is a very daunting thing,” he said in an interview in his office in the DJJ’s headquarters, just south of Interstate 285 in a non-descript office building near Memorial Drive. “But I have very high hopes. Helping young people is consistent in my heart because I am dedicated to service. I have a strong passion for this, for helping people. This was made stronger in the six and a half years I spent on the State Board of Pardon and Paroles.”
But no one should doubt, he said, that his compassion, hopes for and empathy with troubled young people will affect his decisions, some of which, he adds, are very difficult. This is where his training as a lawyer melds with his education as a minister of the Gospel. “You have to make your decisions very clearly based on empirical data, based on offenses committed, and not prayer,” he said. “We have to know if they have drug addiction problems, why they committed offenses, and we take all these things into consideration to use evidence-based practices to make decisions that we think will help them.”
His understanding of people, and of lawbreakers, came not from psychology courses, but from empathy and religious training. “You have to have wisdom from the Lord to make decisions,” he said. “Scripturally, for a king to make a decision, you have to have integrity. These things help me when I’m making decisions about the lives of young people.”
But faith alone, he stresses, will not solve problems.
Young offenders will not be forced to accept his own religious principles, which guide him but do not dictate his actions. “I would not expect to put out a policy requiring any of these youths to go to church,” he said. “It is important for them to have an option. Faith will always be available. We certainly want faith to be involved, but all youths in the system have to have the free will to make their own decisions.” He adds: “Personal faith is a big part of who I am. But I don’t require that of those around me. Let me make that clear. We have a number of religions in our state. I’m not going to be proselytizing.”
His new job, he said, “is very exciting.” And it is a very big and complex one.
At DJJ facilities, young people are incarcerated for terms that depend on the offense they committed. A regular juvenile court commitment order is for two years. A designated felony carries a one to five year sentence. All young offenders must be released from DJJ custody or supervision when they turn 21. How long they are supervised depends on rules of juvenile officials. “Somebody has to have excitement about these kids,” Hunt said. “They have to have hope. Most of these kids need someone who can believe in them.”
He sees no conflict, but rather synergies, in his background in the law and as a “servant of God.”
“A minister, if you look at the word, it means servant,” Hunt said. “I am serving the public, the citizens of Georgia, as well as the young people. Being a servant runs the gamut of everything I want to do. I have a strong passion to help others,” but his religious beliefs do not call for giving offenders an easy ticket back to society.
“As I said, in most cases, decisions are made based on empirical data that we gather on every offender,” he said. “We take into consideration their backgrounds, the offense they committed, whether they have a drug problem. We use evidence-based procedures. But prayer is part of it all.” He adds: “I’m prayerful. I pray every day. With juveniles as with adults, you have to have the wisdom of the Lord to make decisions. It helps me make decisions about young people, just as it did when I was trying to make the best decisions possible on the Parole Board.”
Most of the children in the juvenile system “who got into trouble came from troubled families, dysfunctional families, and they know they need someone who can believe in them and speak up for them. I would strongly encourage their families not to give up on them,” he adds. “Good news stories can and do come from the testimony of kids whose lives got back on track. So it’s very important for us to follow the ones who get out of the system to see how they do.”
Some people think juvenile lawbreakers should be treated as adults are treated, but that notion is foreign to Hunt. “I think that some things a kid of 13 or 14 does is done because they are not mature enough to make decisions, they do not know that decisions they make can affect the rest of their lives,” he said. “So we may need to have different standards for a young person than you would have with an adult.”
But that does not mean Hunt is opposed to punishment when called for. “I think punishment is necessary, but I believe rehabilitation is vital for juveniles,” Hunt said. “We must balance punitive sentence and rehabilitating results.”
Does he pray because he always has, or does he pray for guidance in the decisions he makes?
“I believe the decisions that I make are the right decisions because I am trying to make decisions that are just, that are fair,” Hunt said. “Faith provides a code, like the law. I try to be balanced. My passion comes from deep inside. It takes a balanced approach to life to do this. And that’s why I’m going to love it.”
On the DJJ’s Website, he said “the best interest of the kids” will drive all decisions he and others make. He realizes it won’t be easy.
In the 2009 fiscal year, children in DJJ secure facilities achieved a record number of high school diplomas and GED certificates. Hunt said his goal is to do even better. Governor Perdue, Hunt said, “told me he wanted me to walk in the wisdom of Solomon. And that is what I am dedicated to doing.”
Bill Hendrick is an award winning journalist who worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 29 years. His reporting assignments have taken him to every state and every continent except Antarctica.