Governor-Elect Nathan Deal took office Monday in Georgia. In a surprise move just before the winter holidays, he tapped Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Deputy Commissioner Amy Howell to replace Garland Hunt as commissioner. Howell is an alumna of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic and a past president of the Young Lawyer’s Division of the State Bar of Georgia. In her first formal interview late last week, she talked to JJIE.org’s Chandra Thomas about her plans at the helm of an agency facing more severe budget cuts in the coming year.
Your appointment was a surprise to many in juvenile justice circles, was that the case for you too?
I didn’t directly seek the appointment, but I have always made it known as the former president of the Young Lawyers Division of the State Bar of Georgia that I am open to new challenges. I was really surprised because I have not been working with the agency for 30-plus years. It’s not every day that an opportunity like this comes along, but I am certainly excited.
What was your initial reaction to the news?
It was a combination of surprise and being grateful. I was humbled by the appointment. I felt very proud to represent the agency in this way. I am very appreciative that the governor–elect recognizes that those who work in the agency have the opportunity to share something. I’m really grateful.
This is also an historic appointment as you are the first woman to lead the agency; how does that make you feel?
I am very proud. I am relatively new to the criminal justice field; I didn’t necessarily start out in this as a career. I know that there are a lot of women who work hard in this industry and I respect their contributions . I am glad to see that the governor-elect is aware of these contributions and embracing them. In another sense I don’t think [being a woman in the industry] makes a difference.
What are your main priorities as you launch your term?
When I think of the main issues, young people and public safety come to mind. When I think of it as it relates to young people I think of it in terms of wanting the young people in the system to really see their potential. We want to ensure that these children really have the opportunity to work toward some goals and succeed beyond what they see today. I am very committed to that possibility; I want to help young people make better choices. When I think of it in terms of public safety, I also think about the victims, the prevention of harm and protecting them from further crime. I think about making victims whole, holding young people accountable and making sure that they understand the impact of their actions. I certainly see that as part of our job. It all circles back to that issue of young people embracing the potential that they have. We want to help them to become productive members of society.
Governor-Elect Deal is charged with making the final determination of how severely DJJ’s budget will be cut in the coming year. Are you aware of exactly when he will announce that decision?
The governor-elect at this point has not said exactly when he will make the decision. He will release his budget in his State of the State [report]. At that time we will evaluate what the next steps will be for the agency.
Late last year DJJ submitted budget cut proposals to now former Governor Sonny Perdue. Based on the final cuts, will those proposals be followed exactly as submitted or is it likely that there is going to be some tweaking done to the recommendations submitted?
What was submitted to the governor was just a proposal. We’ll have to wait and see when he submits his budget and then it moves from there to the legislature. We have not been given an exact time frame. It’s hard for me to say what’s going to happen, having not seen the governor’s budget. Once we see it, we will know what to expect. You’ve already done an article about what we could expect as a potential outcomes. My early focus will be about ensuring stability in the agency. We have definitely been able to work within the confines of change, but I’m not focusing on adding new programs. We need to make sure what we’re doing now is being done effectively and efficiently. The work that I’ve been doing with the agency has definitely allowed me to get to know the kids and the staff better.
You’ve done a lot of previous work in the area of mental health treatment within the system; is that something you intend to focus on or beef up during your tenure?
I’ve been over the mental health unit for seven months. I’ve had the opportunity to see the counselors in action doing what they do. I see part of my job as helping to ensure that these young people get the treatment that they need. I am committed to that focus. I do see an opportunity for some [community] partnerships. There are many ideas to consider.
In light of the impending budget cuts, the previous commissioner spoke a lot about the need for the agency to seek out more legislative support. Is that an avenue that you intend to pursue?
There are several policy initiatives that we are considering, but we cannot make a final determination until we hear back from the governor regarding his budget. We definitely want to look at some changes on a policy level. One we’re looking at would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have accomplished the terms of their sentence; for example a child who has completed their GED (General Equivalency Diploma) or earned their diploma. They would, for example, have reached the highest behavioral status available in our facilities. They would have shown that they’ve grown and respond well to rehabilitative efforts. This measure would give judges the opportunity to determine whether it would be beneficial for the child to no longer remain in a secure environment. It would be up to a judge to determine whether someone who was sentenced to five years had actually achieved what needed to be achieved for themselves within four [years]. We would provide the judge with information that would help them to make that determination.
Are there any other similar measures under consideration that would impact population control?
I don’t see the measure that I just mentioned as a measure about population control so much as one that provides us with an opportunity to assess whether the agency is fulfilling its purpose. We want to give the discretion back to judges. That’s a door that has been closed for quite some time. I see this position as an opportunity to work on the vision – the big picture of what juvenile justice should be like in the state of Georgia.
There are lots of extremely different ideologies about how juvenile justice should be carried out in Georgia. What is your opinion?
I see juvenile justice as a balance. We are a public safety agency but we also serve children. It’s about accountability; there’s an action (crime) that has been taken by a young person; they have harmed someone. There is also the child serving aspect. We are working with young people who are physically and emotionally capable of growth. It’s about balancing those efforts with public safety and rehabilitative efforts.
There’s a lot of work ahead for you, is it a bit daunting?
I really look forward to taking on this new challenge and opportunity from the governor-elect. I am eager to bring the agency into the future. I look forward to working on what juvenile justice can be for the state. I am proud to represent the agency and the staff. I am proud to represent the governor and the state and to be an advocate for young people.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. 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.