Thoughts From a Lawmaker on Georgia’s Former DJJ Commissioner

When I heard the news that Amy Howell was stepping down as commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, my first reaction was sadness and dismay. Ms. Howell has been a great asset to the agency and resource to the General Assembly for many years. I have had the pleasure of working with Ms. Howell over many years in different roles. I first met her when she was a fellow with the Southern Juvenile Defender Center at Emory, researching policy initiatives to improve Georgia’s response to children who had started down the wrong path. I was delighted when she transitioned to the Department of Juvenile Justice, and became one of the primary representatives for the agency at the General Assembly.

How Safe Are Georgia’s Youth Detention Facilities?

The beating death this week of 19-year-old inmate Jade Holder at an Augusta, Ga., Youth Development Campus (YDC) is the latest in a series of incidents that have renewed focus on safety levels within Georgia youth detention facilities. Last week, for the second time in six months, county police were called on to quell a riot at the DeKalb County Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC). In May, a murder suspect escaped from the DeKalb RYDC, only to be found and returned a few days later. And in July, the Eastman YDC was the scene of a fight that led to an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). These incidents have all come after an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over implementing changes at the facilities, something that was supposed to improve and stabilize the system.

The Departure of a Fine and Caring DJJ Commissioner

It was with great dismay that I received the news of Commissioner Amy Howell’s departure from the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice late Monday evening. Having grown up in the foster care system for close to the first 12 years of my life, and having spent the next eight years in DJJ custody, I can say I was practically raised in the system. Prior to Amy Howell, I have witnessed first-hand the implementation of policy that was far from best practice, and nowhere near in the best interest of the children and youth. I have experienced abuse from staff working closely with youth and observed leadership that did nothing about it. However, the biggest travesty is that no one from the top leadership, in all their meetings pertaining to financial impact and politics, posed the most fundamental question of all time as it relates to serving youth: “What do the youth have to say?”

UPDATE: Gale Buckner Named New Georgia Juvenile Justice Commissioner

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.

Commissioner Amy Howell DJJ GJSA

Georgia DJJ Commissioner to Resign

Amy Howell, the first woman to head the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is stepping down, according to a resignation letter obtained by JJIE. Gov. Nathan Deal, a former juvenile court judge, appointed Howell in January 2011 soon after he was inaugurated. An official announcement is expected Monday. The spokesperson for the DJJ declined to comment. According to the letter, at the request of Deal, Howell will become General Counsel for the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) to “ensure one of our major agencies is running smoothly through a federal settlement and transition in service delivery.”

Commissioner Amy Howell DJJ GJSA

Georgia’s Commissioner of Department of Juvenile Justice Talks about Her Kids, All 22,000 of Them

Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Amy Howell isn’t ashamed to admit she was a bit of a snotty teen. She had a mean eye-roll and attitude to boot, she has said, and really didn’t see a life past the age of 25. That is until until those in her life who cared about her most, finally got through to her.

When it comes to juvenile justice and heading the DJJ, Howell takes a similar approach. For her it’s personal.

“The goal has to be on the lasting success for young people,” she said. “If we want to make sure they don’t recidivate we need to make sure we’re giving them, and setting them up in the community with, the opportunities for that lasting success.”

Howell recently told a contingent of Georgia YDC Directors that while she considers the juvenile facilities are ‘their house,’ the kids incarcerated are her kids – and she expects them to be taken care of while there.

“My Kids.”

That’s how Howell refers to all of the some 22,000 ‘and two’ kids that are overseen by Georgia’s DJJ: 20,000 kids under community supervision, 2,000 in incarceration and the two in her own home.

DJJ Announces Second Youth Detention Center Closing

The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) announced the closing of the second regional youth detention center (RYDC) in as many days.  The 30-bed Blakely RYDC in Early County will close effective April 1.  The decision to close the facilities came after the DJJ budget was cut by $5.4 million. DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell said the Griffin and Blakely RYDCs were chosen because of their proximity to other facilities and not performance. “The decision was more based on data and not operations,” said Howell.  “The work at both of these facilities was outstanding.”

Last year, the DJJ said up to four facilities, Griffin, Blakely, Claxton and Gwinnett, could be closed. “I’m am totally flabbergasted by this news,” said Captain Phillip Law of the Early County Sheriff’s Department when reached at his office in Blakely. “We thought we had enough political pull to keep it open, but I guess we were wrong.”

Dr.Phil to American Bar Association: Bullying Requires All Hands on Deck

A room full of lawyers got a strong message from Dr. Phil McGraw, TV’s family therapist.  There is “no safe place for kids anymore,” Dr. Phil told a panel on bullying at the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting. “Kids can’t go to their room to get away from [bullying],” he said in the videotaped address on Friday.  “Bullies can still get to them through Facebook and the Internet.”

Dr. Phil said the victims of bullying need help.  “We need all hands on deck,” he said.  “This needs to be addressed and this needs to be addressed now.”

Other panelists echoed the call to action.  Richard Katskee of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, called bullying a “systemic problem that requires a systemic response.”

“Punishing a bully is not enough,” he said.  “They need therapy to help end the behavior.”

“This is a time when we can make progress and institutionalize change,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington Counsel for the Anti-Defamation league. Watch this anti-bullying PSA produced by the ABA that was featured at the conference:

The ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk is seizing the momentum.  They won support for a resolution to the House of Delegates that urges state and federal officials to take action in eliminating bullying. Dr. Phil called the resolution “top notch.”  Key points of the resolution include:

Discourages inappropriate referral of youth to juvenile court
Labels expulsion and out-of-school suspension “inappropriate” punishments
Urges officials to prevent the causes of bullying

The resolution also calls for the identification of victims of bullying, a departure from current zero-tolerance policies in schools that do not distinguish between the bully and the victim.  Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske advocates reversing these policies. “Zero tolerance policies are contrary to our fundamental right to self-defense,” Judge Teske writes in an op-ed on JJIE.org

In a panel discussion titled Bringing Youth Justice to Georgia, Judge Teske called for a reduction in school referrals to juvenile courts.

DJJ’s Howell Promises New Direction at Troubled Eastman YDC

After two incidents at the Eastman Youth Development Campus last week, director Todd Weeks is out.  Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Amy Howell took action on Friday, tapping George Smith to fill the job on an interim basis.  A statement from DJJ says, “The Commissioner is actively moving the Eastman YDC in a new direction with new leadership.  “

Smith will be coming out of retirement to run Eastman.  Until last November he was Deputy Director of Facilities Operations at the Georgia Department of Corrections.  He spent 34 years with the agency. Eastman houses some of the toughest young offenders in the state – older teens who have committed serious crimes.  Disturbances there are not new.  Last May, an uprising led to an escape.  In the latest incident on February 2nd, a correctional officer was injured and treated at a local hospital, according to DJJ spokesperson Scheree Moore.  On January 30, about 60 inmates acted out and refused to follow orders.  Five of them beat a guard with a broom handle, and several set small fires in a dorm.   Someone at Eastman called for help and six police agencies rushed to the campus. It took about an hour to get the inmates back in their cells. Last week’s incidents remain under investigation.  The statement from DJJ adds, “Commissioner Howell is taking these incidents that are occurring at Eastman very seriously and is committed to providing a safe and secure environment to the youth that are housed and the employees that work at the facility.”