Thanks to a new Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) policy overcrowding is no longer an option in Georgia’s Regional Youth Development Centers (RYDCs). There are concerns, however, that the mandate to maintain a smaller number of kids in facilities could potentially become an expensive logistical nightmare for law enforcement.
Now when RYDCs reach the new lowered population levels, law enforcement officers are required to drive the juveniles to the nearest available facility – whether it’s 10 or 100 miles away.
“Concerns have been raised that there are going to be longer trips and it’s going to cost more to move kids from one center to the other and to transport them to court, “ said Rob Rosenbloom, DJJ Deputy Commissioner. “It’s a legitimate concern, but our hands are tied due to budget constraints. Our priority is to try to balance it out so that no facility is ever overcrowded.”
For about a month, RYDC managers and law enforcement officers have been under DJJ orders to maintain a maximum 105 percent capacity rate, and only then for brief periods overnight. DJJ issued the order last month in light of budget limitations that no longer allow for the facilities to accommodate a longstanding policy of reaching a 120 percent capacity level during high intake periods.
“We used to operate at 120 percent, but we can’t operate at that level anymore,” said DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “We just don’t have the [budget] for that anymore. We are allowing the facilities to go up to 105 percent if the child arrives in late afternoon or at night, but by the next morning they must be transported to another less crowded facility.”
The question is who’s responsible for transporting the child the next morning. Under DJJ policy and state law, it’s the job of local law enforcement to move the child to another facility and take the child to court. DJJ handles transportation only after the child is processed through court and is sentenced to detention. “It certainly is more of a burden and a task for a sheriff’s deputy to be diverted to a center that’s far away,” said Rosenbloom. “We’re trying to limit the times they have to do that. We do whatever we can to leave room locally.”
RYDC staffers received the mandate in November via a DJJ memo. The details of the letter were shared with Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia representatives last week in response to concerns some judges have raised about the new policy. It noted that since DJJ had been released from DOJ oversight more than a year ago due to previous overcrowding problems "it is now time to ensure that each RYDC operates within 100 percent of its capacity." The memo continued: “When capacity is exceeded it creates operational issues and safety and security concerns. Operating within our capacity helps avoid the possibility of returning to federal oversight.”
Rosenbloom added that overcrowded facilities contributed to staffing challenges and often required costly overtime pay. He said the policy change will also allow DJJ to avoid any threat of returning to the crowded conditions that led to the system’s problems with DOJ.
“It’s important to note that DJJ has always moved kids from one center to another,” Rosenbloom said. “Before we were doing it at 120 percent capacity; now we’re doing it at 105 percent. If a judge signs detention orders we have to honor that; we have the authority to determine what bed to put the kid in. No kid has been turned away from a facility.”
Rosenbloom said for the past year and a half DJJ facilities have been operating system wide below capacity. “The challenge is going to be when we have higher population demand,” he said. “We’re not there yet and I don’t anticipate us reaching that point anytime soon, but we’re going to have to make some decisions about how we’re going to manage this when or if all of our facilities ever reach capacity.”