After serving for nearly one year, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner announces her departure, with a parting message for the agency, “the crisis stage is passed and we’re on to better opportunities.”
In November 2011, the department was beset with security and safety deficiencies, and Gov. Nathan Deal announced the appointment of Buckner, a career law enforcement officer, to the top job. The same day may have been the department’s worst: an inmate was beaten to death in Augusta’s youth detention center.
“I will be moving forward with my retirement from the state of Georgia,” she said at an Oct. 3 Board of Juvenile Justice meeting. Her departure is effective Nov. 1.
“I have been appointed by the Conasauga Judicial Circuit to take the role of chief magistrate in Murray County,” she said. Buckner had been scheduled to retire a year ago when Deal appointed her.
“I want to thank the commissioner for her work at a time when the agency was in dark days …” board Secretary Sandra Heath Taylor told the meeting.
“They have really been placing her in the hot spot to get everything running right and she has done that,” Bibb County Juvenile Court Judge Quintress Gilbert commented.
Compared to a year ago, the department is more stable, Buckner said. And staff can have more confidence in the tools and training at their disposal to do their jobs.
“For example, in our secure facilities, our folks are now in identifiable uniforms that are illustrating their authority as juvenile correctional officers,” she said.
On the training side, “we had correctional officers that didn’t know what gang signs meant … had no idea if they were gang signs, what they meant, what sort of groups that they had.”
Intelligence on gang membership was not being fed up the chain of command either. For example, if Court Services — staff working in intake, case management and other services — noted gang-affiliated tattoos on a young person, “a lot of times that information was not being forwarded when they went into our secure facilities.”
“Especially when you had competing gangs in the same facility,” that’s dangerous, Buckner said.
Contraband in secure facilities has “lessened tremendously” in the last year, Buckner noted: fewer homemade tattoo guns, cell phone charges and unauthorized food and clothes.
She said it’s because youth are now aware of the consequences of their behavior.
“Now they are told right from the start when they come in to a secure facility … that they will be held accountable both for their positive behaviors as well as for their problematic behavior.” There’s a reward system now in place, doling out privileges as simple as staying up later to watch TV or for breaking the rules, being placed in an area for a cool-down.
A program of building security upgrades is expected to be finished by the end of the year, things like more fencing, outside lighting and better doorlocks. Even the shower stalls are changing. Old-style stalls had pieces that could be chipped off and used for self-harm or as a weapon.
As for the rule book, Buckner said when she arrived there were “hundreds” of policies and procedures that were past the time they needed to be renewed or revised. A new website lists the most recent few dozen changes.
Also newly available via computer are kids’ DJJ school records. Previously, schools on the outside waited so long for paper DJJ school records that it delayed them getting into class. Now receiving schools can see what they need online.
The person who replaces Buckner is dealing with a very different population than just five or six years ago, a population under tighter supervision since her tenure began.
Both budget cuts and renovations at different facilities are contributing to a buildup of designated felons — the most violent, serious offenders — at facilities designed for short-term, less risky inmates.
Thus those less risky kids “are backing up into the community because our friends in the judicial community realize we’re at full capacity just dealing with the designated felons,” explained Buckner.
It’s up to the governor to name a permanent replacement for her.
The board unanimously elected chair Avery Niles, warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution as interim commissioner, effective from Buckner’s departure.