As Georgia faces its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has been forced to make drastic budget cuts. The last three years have seen a reduction of more than 20% in state funding. And future cuts of up to 10% for FY 2012 are possible.
Jeff Minor, long time DJJ Chief Financial Officer, explains these losses in stark terms:
- In FY 2009, DJJ’s base budget totaled nearly $343 million. By 2011, the budget was down to $266 million.
- The FY 2012 budget faces further cuts, from $15.4 million in a best case scenario to $25.7 million in a worst case scenario.
- Over a three year period, the cuts could total nearly 30%.
In addition, says Minor, the agency lost more than $80 million in one-time budget cuts, largely absorbed through staff furloughs and hiring freezes.
Minor reports that these reductions are unprecedented during his thirty years in state government. He says, “They have touched every aspect of our business and our service delivery system.”
These cuts represent more than numbers: They have led to a dramatic loss in services and programs.
In the last two years, DJJ reduced field and administrative staff, and cut back community residential services by eliminating or reducing contracts with non-profit community providers. DJJ also lost a significant number of beds for children in secure facilities. The length of stay in DJJ Short Term Programs (STPs) has been slashed from 90 to 30 days. The Milledgeville Youth Development Center, the state’s largest YDC, closed altogether in 2010.
These losses, particularly the elimination of 300 secure beds at Milledgeville, have had a domino effect on the system.
Teens currently sentenced to Short Term Programs are spending their time in Regional Detention Centers. Now, virtually all youth under regular DJJ commitments, are diverted to non-secure community placements. Designated Felons (youth sentenced for up to five years in secure facilities for serious offenses) comprise nearly 100% of Georgia’s youth prison population. This means that community resources previously allotted to less serious offenders are now focused on committed youth, with increasingly less attention given to low risk offenders.
However, Minor believes the 2009 reduction in funding for Short Term Programs is having a positive impact. “These cuts forced the state of Georgia to talk about its practices and policies around what type of youth need to be in what type of environment, and ultimately it was a good budget cut, if there is such a thing,” he says.
In short, the state was required to prioritize which kids belong behind bars.
By reducing the length of stay in STPs, Minor asserts that the agency was able to manage the required cuts with little danger to public safety. He says, “Reducing the length of time [in STP] has not made a difference in recidivism rates for a program that has not been terribly successful.”
Many experts and advocates believe that less serious offenders should be diverted from secure institutions altogether. Others argue that even low level offenders need to be held accountable for their actions, particularly those placed on probation. The issue of incarcerating status offenders, misdemeanants and non-violent felons has been a source of continuing tension within Georgia’s juvenile justice system. DJJ leadership has long sought to reduce the use of secure detention for these kids, and limit the use of STP.
It all comes down to managing resources, says Minor, particularly institutional programs that account for more than two thirds of DJJ’s annual budget. Secure facilities are now increasingly reserved for serious offenders, while at the same time overcrowding – the primary cause of DJJ’s past troubles with the U.S. Department of Justice – has been avoided. The agency has made a conscious effort to maintain quality services and conditions in its secure facilities. “We would rather close beds or a whole facility,” he maintains, “than jeopardize services to the youth we do have… We are still sound in our staffing patterns and procedures,” says Minor, “we are not going to warehouse kids.”
Of course, there are painful consequences.
Low level offenders no longer receive the same level of services. The agency’s Runaway Apprehension Unit has been eliminated. Academic class sizes have been increased in facilities, allowing for cuts in teaching staff, and the number of mental health professionals has been reduced. More than 400 positions were eliminated with the closure of the Milledgeville YDC. Caseloads for field staff have risen as positions were eliminated, and two years of monthly furloughs have taken their toll. Since 2009, nearly forty administrative positions have been lost, as well as 82 probation and parole positions. Declining funding has also compelled private providers serving DJJ youth to lay off staff or close programs altogether.
More draconian cuts are on the horizon.
If DJJ’s FY 2012 budget is reduced by another 10%, the agency plans to close four RYDCs losing nearly 20% of its statewide capacity, and eliminate 128 beds at the Eastman YDC. Another 106 community treatment slots with private providers would also be lost. These moves would be far more difficult to absorb. “We have to keep reminding the public,” says Minor, “that DJJ is a child serving and a public safety agency.” These, he believes, are critical missions for the state. Minor is proud of the agency’s ability to adapt to ever leaner budgets, and of the sacrifices and dedication of DJJ staff. He is deeply concerned, however, that the proposed cuts for 2012 might, for the first time, prove to be “unmanageable.”
“Cuts of this level,” he argues, ”without reasonable public policy changes that people can agree on, are simply not doable.” Yet he remains optimistic. “Government does not innovate unless forced to with a budget crisis. There are still positive changes we can make in Georgia that will help kids, help public safety and help this budget.” Georgia’s FY 2012 budget may well provide the opportunity to see if he is right.