L. Gale Buckner has been named the new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Buckner was a long-time agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and currently serves as Vice Chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Current DJJ commissioner Amy Howell will join the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) as General Counsel at the request of Gov. Nathan Deal. In 2010, state and federal officials reached an agreement that places DBHDD’s focus on community-based care following a three-year investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into allegations DBHDD was violating patients’ civil rights.
“As the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities implements the state’s settlement with the federal Department of Justice, I wanted to put Commissioner Amy Howell’s experience and skill set to work on that important task,” Deal said in a press release. “Commissioner Frank Shelp and I are excited that she has agreed to take on this job. The timing of this has worked out great as it comes near the end of Gale Buckner’s tenure on Pardons and Paroles. Gale Buckner has given the state years of excellent service, and she boasts an impressive resume in law enforcement. I appreciate her willingness to take on this new role.”
Buckner will be the second DJJ commissioner of the last three to come from the Board of Pardons and Paroles when their term expired. Howell’s predecessor, Garland Hunt, was formerly chairman of the Board. Buckner will be succeeded on the Board by James Mills.
Howell, a former assistant public defender in the DeKalb County, Ga. Juvenile Court, first joined the DJJ in 2005 as legal services director. A year later she was named deputy commissioner. According to her biography on the DJJ website, Howell managed many different divisions within the DJJ including legal services, apprehensions and medical and behavioral health.
Howell issued a letter to DJJ staff members last week thanking them for their service and announcing her departure.
“I have counted every day that I was Commissioner,” she wrote, “to ensure that I took full advantage of the opportunity to serve and improve our agency.”
Writing to her staff she continued:
I have tremendous respect and awe for DJJ staff’s unwavering commitment to helping youth and keeping our community safe. On the difficult days, recall the positive impact you have had – when former youth call to say they’ve found and kept jobs, have finished school, gotten married, or started their own family and are happy. These are the stories of your success.
Concluding the letter she wrote, “Remember, offer hope and youth change.”
The tone of Howell's letter doesn't ring true for some current and former employees at DJJ. One source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an oppressive atmosphere at DJJ that had set in essentially since the day former Commissioner Amy Howell took over in January 2011.
Citing numerous high-level firings, demotions and reassignments, the source said a good culture at the agency has “basically been destroyed.”
Another source who declined to be identified, referred to Howell as being a “novice at management,” saying that her tactics included firings, demotions and reassignments to difficult jobs.
The flow of information within the DJJ had also been hindered, a source said. Referring to an October riot in a DeKalb youth detention center, the source said virtually no one inside the DJJ was made aware of the incident that involved more than half of the 64 inmates in the facility.
One former employee to the DJJ, Clifford Hamilton, says he believes Howell fired him from his job as director of alcohol and drug rehabilitation at two Georgia Youth Detention Centers in July.
“I have never been able to understand it,” said Hamilton. “They never warned me, never told me anything. I had just been promoted and received the highest professional evaluation. I was never told anything was wrong.
“Amy Howell fired a lot of people,” Hamilton continued. “She fired them or she forced them out and I believe it was her decision for it to happen to me.”
Hamilton said he was told that he had violated a policy, but it was never explained what policy. He also says his termination was a result of an incident at the Eastman YDC that result in injuries to staff and inmates, including one serious injury to a juvenile.
“I fail to see how I had anything to do with that at all,” he said.
When asked to comment on the allegations, a spokesperson for the Governor's office responded, "Commissioner Howell sought to build the best team possible. The Governor has entrusted Commissioner Howell with a position of great responsibility. That’s why there is a change in leadership."
In recent days, Howell came under fire from a local Atlanta television station when it was discovered she had been receiving a monthly car allowance of more than $580, along with access to a state-owned car. The television station, WSB-TV, reported the state stopped approving car allowances in 2005. WSB-TV also reported a mileage log for the vehicle failed to account for more than 2,000 miles. The log showed only Howell and two close associates used the car, which the state leases for nearly $500 per month.
Howell reimbursed the state for $4,100, the amount of the car allowance she received minus taxes paid. WSB-TV reported the two previous DJJ commissioners also received car allowances but could not determine who approved the funds.
You can read JJIE's previous coverage of Amy Howell here.
Editor's note: This article has been altered to add an assertion by Clifford Hamilton this it is his belief that Amy Howell was responsible for his firing.
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