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Georgia Detention Center Where Teen Killed Himself Was Understaffed, Report Finds

ATLANTA — Severe understaffing and failures in training and mental health procedures appeared to be factors in the Easter Sunday suicide of a 14-year-old at an Atlanta area youth detention center.

DJJ suicide investigative report cover
Click to read the investigation report by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

A state Department of Juvenile Justice probe, while drawing no direct connection, listed dozens of violations of DJJ policies in a 78-page report on the death of Jimariya Davidson. Two employees were fired and eight others disciplined as a result.

The findings illustrate what some observers see as a frequently found gap between carefully considered policies and everyday practices in youth prisons across the country.

Davidson was found unresponsive April 5 in his cell at the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center in DeKalb County. He had hanged himself, DJJ said, from a jumpsuit tied to a sprinkler head in his cell. (A DeKalb police report previously identified Davidson, but DJJ redacted his name from the report released Tuesday.)

Metro RYDC, which normally holds about 120 youths, was operating that day with a staff of just 18, well below the facility’s minimum of 29, according to the report. After the fact, the report said, a department analysis found Metro should have had 39 staffers on that shift.

Davidson, the report said, had been improperly denied basic amenities while being held in disciplinary confinement. He couldn’t take a shower in his cell because the water was inexplicably turned off. He was denied mandatory recreation and leisure time for two days before his death.

Finally, when the scheduled time for Davidson’s release from lockdown came and went that Sunday with no action, the report said, he took steps on his own.

When Officer Adrian Cooper did not respond to Davidson’s calls for release, he “began to say that he was going to kill himself,” a youth in a neighboring cell told DJJ’s investigator.

[Related: Photo Gallery — Inside Metro RYDC, Ga.’s Largest Detention Center]

Another youth said a supervisor, Lt. Brandon Waters, told Davidson that morning he would not be coming off lockdown, the report said. Davidson, the youth said, “told him to tell Cooper that he was going to kill himself and to call Lt. Waters.” When Cooper called Waters, the lieutenant said he was busy. (Waters said he never got that call.)

Cooper, the first youth said, didn’t check on Davidson for another 45 minutes, after being told the 14-year-old had something around his neck.

Davidson had been confined to his cell for three days after spouting profanity at a teacher at the facility and threatening to harm her, the investigation found. Officers said they handcuffed him before returning him to his cell because he had a history of head-butting, spitting and biting the facility’s staff.

The DJJ report contained conflicting accounts of Davidson’s state of mind. One youth said Davidson was depressed and always wanted to talk about the death of his brother, who he said had been shot in the back of the head in January. Davidson also said he hadn’t seen his family in a year.

(A lawyer for Davidson’s parents said he believed Jimariya was referring to a close friend rather than a brother. The lawyer added that his clients had visited their son at the RYDC and spoke to him regularly on the phone.)

Another youth, though, said Davidson showed no outward signs of being troubled. “If [he] was depressed, he did not show it,” the youth told investigators. “[He] was always playing and joking with others and always talking about fighting someone and playing basketball.”

A third youth described Davidson as a “drama queen” who often talked about harming himself. Davidson, the youth said, “would bite the inside of his mouth and make his nose bleed and put it on the window so the security staff could take him out of the cell.”

Counselors did not check on Davidson on either the Friday or Saturday before his death as required for all youths who are confined to their cells, the report said. One counselor, who forgot to record a “crisis note” on Davidson before leaving work Friday, said she “panicked” and called an intern that Sunday to have the note entered after the youth’s death.

Many of the facility’s failings had been identified in a February 2014 audit but had not been corrected by the time of Davidson’s death.

Pamela Mitchell, the RYDC’s former director, said she had assigned managers to oversee steps to ensure compliance with DJJ policies, but staffing issues got in the way.

She told a DJJ investigator she was “not surprised that things were falling apart due to not being properly monitored and this is a result of staffing vacancies.”

DJJ’s report substantiated allegations against Cooper, Waters and 10 other current and former staffers at Metro RYDC. Cooper and nurse Kawana Wires, who did not try to resuscitate Davidson and told others to stop their efforts, were fired.

Lawyers for Davidson’s parents, who have filed a $1 million claim against DJJ for its alleged “indifference” to his expression of suicidal thoughts, said Tuesday they are continuing to investigate the circumstances of his death.

“It is clear, however, that Jimariya’s death was completely preventable, and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice has committed grossly negligent acts for which it must answer,” attorney Eric Fredrickson said in an emailed statement.

More stories related to this one:

GBI Probing Teen’s Death in Georgia Detention Facility

Juvenile Detention Centers: On the Other Side of ‘Lock ‘Em Up,’ but Not Quite Trauma-Informed

Life after Juvenile Detention

How Safe Are Georgia’s Youth Detention Facilities?

In Georgia, Youth and Adult Lock-ups Have Equal Teen Felony Recidivism Rates

ATLANTA – Georgia legislators split the difference when they toughened juvenile justice laws in 1994. They stiffened sentences for the most violent crimes, sending some teens to adult prisons. But lawmakers also gave courts discretion to keep some of the serious offenders in the state’s juvenile facilities.

Two decades later, though, a new data analysis shows Georgia's juvenile system has turned out just as high a percentage of repeat offenders as its adult prisons. Whether teens spent time in youth detention centers or adult lock-ups for targeted violent crimes, the analysis found, their felony recidivism rates have been virtually identical.

The findings come as Georgia policy-makers debate proposed reforms intended to rehabilitate non-violent juveniles in their communities rather than in state detention. The move would free up costly bed space so that violent teens could remain behind bars — prisoners, some say, of a system that remains ill-equipped to help them straighten out their lives.

Some Georgia law-enforcement leaders believe violent juveniles should be locked up and off the streets, at least for a while. “The best way I can tell you to protect the public is to take [violent youths] out of society,” says Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.

McDade, a key member of a state panel studying juvenile justice reform in Georgia, says he doesn’t oppose rehabilitation programs for violent offenders. But scarce public resources must be spent first, he said, on other young offenders who are more likely to mend their ways.

Other observers contend Georgia cannot continue to lock up violent youths in the hope that they’ll turn over a new leaf upon release.

"Do we believe that we can change people when they're younger so they don't commit further crimes?” said Tom Rawlings, the state’s child advocate under ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue. “If that is the belief, then we have to start acting like it.”

Otherwise, Rawlings said, "we're essentially spending a ton of money locking up offenders in expensive hotels and then, at the end of their stay, telling them, 'We'll leave the light on for you.'"

Beginnings

In 1994, as part of the School Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform Act, Georgia legislators created dual tracks for youths 13 to 16 years old who were charged with one of the the so-called Seven Deadly Sins: murder, armed robbery with a firearm, rape, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated sodomy and aggravated child molestation. Adult courts would assume exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute and sentence those offenders. Prosecutors, before indictment, could transfer them to Juvenile Court, where they would face a maximum sentence of five years (up from 18 months in the previous law.)

Critics feared the get-tough tactics would misfire, fostering a new class of career criminals by locking up salvageable youths side-by-side with hardened offenders in adult prisons. "You are creating an animal," Rep. Denmark Groover (D-Macon) warned colleagues at the time.

More than half of all such cases were returned to juvenile authorities under SB440, as the 1994 law is still known, according to the analysis, a joint project of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Youth Today and the Center for Public Integrity. In general, that's because court officials believed those offenders’ cases were less severe and the juvenile system theoretically promised them a better chance of turning their lives around.

But that has not turned out to be the case. Overall, about one in four youths confined for an SB440 crime committed another felony within three years of release, according to the analysis. The rate was 24.6 percent for offenders leaving a youth facility and 24.7 percent for those released from an adult prison.

Just as alarming, recidivism for offenders leaving juvenile detention for lesser crimes – a rate that the state calculates more broadly — is even higher.

"The DJJ recidivism rates are terrible, and clearly suggest we are doing something wrong — both wasting taxpayers' money and helping neither the young offender nor protecting the public," state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) said.

Behind the numbers

The JJIE analysis looked at the post-release records of 625 youths who served time between 1994 and 2008 for armed robbery, aggravated sex crimes or other SB440 offenses. Recidivists were defined as those offenders who, within three years of release, committed another felony for which they were subsequently convicted.

Armed robbers, the most common SB440 offenders, were substantially more likely to reoffend if they were transferred to Georgia's juvenile system, the analysis found. The recidivism rate was 44 percent for armed robbers released from juvenile detention and 31 percent for those leaving an adult prison.

Age may explain why recidivism was not lower for the juvenile system than for adult prisons. Statistics show juveniles' crime rate increases steadily as they get older, peaking at 18 or 19 and then declining precipitously as they become adults and mature in their 20s. SB440 offenders serve longer sentences in adult prisons - often a 10-year minimum - but no more than five years in the juvenile system. On average, the analysis found SB440 offenders were 24 on release from an adult prison but just 15 when leaving a juvenile facility.

Despite the age differences, there may be another reason why the juvenile system’s recidivism rates weren’t lower, said Rawlings, the former child advocate who is a longtime critic of SB440. Detention in either an adult or youth prison, he said, won't guarantee rehabilitation if a juvenile offender returns to the same environment and peer group upon release.

"The question should be: What can you do for these children to give them a fresh start?" said Rawlings, a former juvenile court judge. "You can't just say we're going to lock them up and they're going to learn a lesson."

Juvenile justice expert Jeffrey Butts said he's not surprised that JJIE's analysis found the similar recidivism rates. "It's a finding I would predict in all states," he said.

In part, that's because society holds a false expectation about juvenile lockups, "a fantasy that incarceration is treatment," said Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "We lock them up and then we convince ourselves it's good for the kids too."

Some prison rehabilitation programs can be effective, Butts said, but "there's nothing inherent about locking someone up and controlling their movement that is rehabilitative." In fact, recent research shows that imprisonment longer than six months has no effect on whether a juvenile commits another crime later on.

Butts also cautioned against reading too much into recidivism comparisons without knowing why young offenders were prosecuted in one system or the other.

"Without context, it doesn't mean anything," he said.

Community-based treatment

The Georgia Legislature is now considering recommendations of a juvenile justice task force to move most non-violent juvenile offenders out of secure detention into programs based in their communities –potentially saving the state $70,000 a year or more for each youth.

The panel hasn't talked much about sentencing alternatives for SB440 offenders. But task force co-chairman Michael Boggs, an appellate court judge and former Republican legislator, said he's open to exploring "evidence-based" alternatives that other states have found effective.

Georgia's recidivism rates show clearly that rehabilitation efforts in youth prisons have been ineffective, Boggs said. "We know 'Scared Straight' doesn't work," he said. "We know boot camps don't work."

The trick would be overcoming lawmakers' fears that they'd be labeled "soft on crime" if they vote to return violent juvenile offenders [to their communities for treatment.

Proponents of alternative sentencing also must challenge the notion that violent offenders are beyond help "so the only goal should be to protect the public —meaning lock him up with no attempts at rehabilitation," Rep. Oliver, a member of the task force, said.

Perhaps the bigger obstacle is a lack of commitment to spend money on 'bad' teenagers," she said. "Most General Assembly members don't believe they know any families with teenagers who are actually impacted by SB 440."

Still, Boggs said, policy-makers may soon be ready to have that debate.

"I really think we are on the verge of going into some difficult areas that heretofore might have been politically impossible," he said.

Findings

Under SB440, offenders 16 or younger automatically go before a Superior Court judge if they are accused of one of those seven crimes.  If a judge signs off, however, prosecutors and defense attorneys can agree — based on the defendant's mental health, education, family background or other circumstances — to send a case to juvenile authorities. The juvenile system may hold offenders for up to five years or until the offender’s 21st birthday.

State officials have reported increasing recidivism among all youths leaving juvenile prisons in recent years as the detained population specifically has grown older and more violent, a product of more commitments and longer sentences for SB440 offenses. The state Department of Juvenile Justice says youths 18 and older - who were just 7 percent of its prison population in 2000 — now make up 40 percent. The portion who are labeled as "designated felons," whose offense would be a serious crime if committed by an adult, is now 96 percent, up from about one-third a decade ago.

The trend may have reached critical mass in 2010 and 2011, as a wave of violence swept through Georgia's youth prisons, culminating in the November 2011 beating death of a 19-year-old in his Augusta cell. Unannounced inspections of offenders' cells statewide later turned up cellphones, tobacco, homemade weapons and other contraband. Gang graffiti was commonplace in many facilities.

That edgier environment - which some prisoners compare to that of adult lock-ups — can harden youths and explain why some return to crime. But criminal justice professionals and advocates say many ex-offenders, once they've gone home, also aren't getting proper schooling and mental health care that could help them put their lives back together.

DJJ, by providing medication, therapy and other services, has become the state's de facto mental health care system for many of those juveniles. Half or more of youths in detention have been diagnosed with a behavioral health disorder, often one that played a role in their crimes.

In fact, judges frequently transfer SB440 cases to the juvenile system because they know adult prisons do not offer similar services. Those programs are considered particularly helpful to children who have trouble respecting sexual boundaries.

Once offenders leave a DJJ facility, though, they must rely on Georgia's severely underfunded system for mental health care - ranked 49th per-capita in a 2009 survey by the Kaiser Foundation. As a consequence, many no longer have access to treatments or drugs prescribed for their conditions.

"When they don't take medications, when they don't have a strong support system to reinforce what they need, they're going to come into contact repeatedly with the justice system," Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said.

Georgia is spending at least $82 million to settle a federal complaint regarding the state's inadequate care for mental health patients. Treatment for juveniles, though, was excluded from terms of the settlement.

Schooling

Public schools also can present a roadblock to rehabilitation. Offenders take classes in DJJ's accredited school system while they're in confinement but, after release, they're typically shunted into alternative schools or barred from re-enrolling for up to a year.

In many communities, students in alternative schools must fend for themselves, sitting at computer terminals while they plow through instructional workbooks. A teacher is generally available to answer questions but does not lead the instruction.

"It's really about self-motivation," said Randee Waldman, director of Emory University's Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic. "A lot of our kids are not self-motivated. That's why they're there in the first place."

Many should be in a special-education program. "If you stick them in front of a computer and tell them to learn, it's a challenge," Waldman said.

Offenders say local school systems often steer them away from seeking a high school diploma. They're encouraged instead, Waldman said, to work toward a GED that won't help them nearly as much to land a decent job. "Quite frankly, it's an ... easy way out," she said. "It's a shortcut, and kids like to take shortcuts."

Frequently, alternative school is only offered for a half-day, allowing students to fall even further behind their grade level. Half-days also leave many ex-offenders idle and without adult supervision at a time of day when they need it most.

Judge Walker, a former schoolteacher, bemoans the increasing reliance on alternative schools for ex-offenders, who face long odds trying to land a decent job without an education.

"I don't understand how we're doing anything except pushing children out of school," she said. "The one opportunity that children have is education. We've cut off their one opportunity for success."

DJJ officials recognize that education and mental health issues are closely linked to recidivism. But the agency has only recently started to track whether ex-offenders are in school or receiving mental health treatment.

Racial disparities

Recidivism in the juvenile justice system seems to carry a disproportionate impact on minority communities, JJIE's data analysis found. African-American offenders detained there for SB440 crimes were 2.7 times as likely as whites to be convicted of another felony within three years of release.

There is no evidence that race is the reason that some youths commit more crimes than others. Rather, ethnicity can serve as a "proxy," criminal justice experts say, for poverty, lack of educational opportunity, unsafe neighborhoods and other factors that can contribute to recidivism.

The racial disparity found in the data analysis did not surprise DJJ officials. Disproportionate numbers of minorities come into contact with the juvenile justice system at every stage - police, courts and rehabilitation, recently retired DJJ assistant commissioner Jeff Minor said. He noted that other states have also found a racial imbalance in their juvenile justice populations.

Georgia's racial recidivism gap, though, appears larger than in other states that track such numbers. Studies found recidivism among black juveniles was slightly higher than for whites in Delaware and Missouri. In Washington state, the rates for both races were roughly the same.

The disparity in Georgia holds true even among youths whom DJJ classifies as having the same likelihood for recidivism, the JJIE study found. Among medium- and high-risk offenders, for example, 57 percent of black youth reoffended within three years, compared to just 15 percent of whites.

This story was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity

Photo by OA Development

Reporter’s Notebook: DJJ Bill Could Seal Reports of Staff Misconduct

Whitney Bonds looked like this shortly after another girl attacked her. Photo by Haley Bonds.

Allegations of wrongdoing in the state’s juvenile prisons could be sealed from public view under a bill considered yesterday by a House subcommittee

Witnesses representing the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which requested the bill, said it was intended to protect children in custody from possible retaliation for reporting gang or other criminal activity.

The current version of the bill, though, makes no mention of gangs or juvenile crime. Rather, it would exempt from disclosure “the information provided by children who report abuses or wrongdoing in the juvenile justice system,” unless the child or his or her representative consent in writing.

An earlier version of the bill would have taken secrecy a step further, classifying “investigation reports and intelligence data” about alleged abuses and wrongdoing as “confidential state secrets” that would be exempt from the Open Records Act. Only the DJJ commissioner could declassify them.

Full disclosure: I stumbled across this bill by accident, having shown up at yesterday’s subcommittee hearing just to take pictures of its members. Within half an hour, I was testifying about the bill — certainly a first for me in 40 years of news gathering. But my experience a year ago in reporting a couple stories about alleged DJJ wrongdoing for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, I thought, might help the lawmakers decide how to proceed.

Whitney Bonds, then 16, had claimed that guards put another girl up to attacking her. DJJ regarded the allegations as totally bogus, and one official mocked me for giving any credence to them. A guard was later fired, though, for failing to stop the attack, and two others disciplined for unrelated violations.

Whitney’s mother, Haley, put us on to the story. She related what her daughter told her about threats from another girl and a supervisor’s inaction when Whitney, just minutes before the attack, predicted she would be assaulted when she returned to her cellblock.

Haley Bonds would certainly have provided written consent to make DJJ’s investigative file public. But that circumstance, under the bill as currently drafted, would be the exception. Given the confidentiality accorded juvenile detainees, reporters rarely would know who to ask for permission to review an investigative file.

Regardless of their validity, the public has a right to know about accusations like Whitney’s and how the department handles them. The solution to gang retaliation against jailhouse snitches, it seems to me, is not sealing reports of wrongdoing by DJJ staff (particularly when the the bill, as I read it, could leave a juvenile’s report about gang activity subject to disclosure under the Open Records Act).

Linking this particular problem to this particular fix seems, shall we say, misguided. Sealing off allegations of wrongdoing protects the wrongdoers, not the kids.

Journalists see this pattern often. When the Division of Family and Children Services won’t release files on kids who die in its care, its caseworkers and managers benefit. When police internal investigations drag on for years with no resolution, the accused officers win — particularly if they’ve been “suspended with pay” for the duration.

Rep. Alex Atwood, the subcommittee’s chairman, asked me if I had any suggestions on amending the bill to address my concerns.

If you’re concerned about gang retaliation, I’d say you should redraft the bill so it’s specific to reports of gang activity.

And while I understand wanting to keep an informant’s identity confidential, I see no need to seal allegations of official misconduct.

That would protect someone else altogether.

——–

Footnote: S.B. 69 passed the Senate last month on a 51-0 vote. The subcommittee today referred the bill to the full House Juvenile Justice Committee but will work on substitute language in the interim.

 

Georgia Legislature Passes Some Juvenile-Related Bills, Kills Others in Final Days of Session

Georgia legislators found the money this year to tighten security and respond quickly to emergencies at the state's juvenile detention centers. They also declared cellphones and other telecommunications devices in juvenile prisons to be contraband.

But they couldn't find the money to pass juvenile justice reform, because Gov. Nathan Deal and others said they weren't sure how much it would cost. So the five-year effort to overhaul Georgia's aging juvenile code will become a six-year campaign when the Legislature reconvenes in 2013.

At the 11th hour, though, one provision of the proposed code rewrite was tacked onto the contraband bill and passed Thursday by both chambers.

Rep. Wendell Willard's amendment establishes a permanent limit of 30 days' confinement in so-called "short-term programs," an outgrowth of ex-Gov. Zell Miller's "boot camps" created for young offenders in the 1990s. A sunset provision in current law would have raised that ceiling next year to 60 days.

To save money, Georgia since 2005 has reduced the limit on short-term stays from 90 days to 60 days and then to 30. In 2008, STP offenders occupied more than one in five beds in Georgia's youth prisons, but the number has fallen since then.

Also Thursday, the House and Senate agreed to create a study commission to recommend services to help with the recovery of victims of human trafficking, about half of whom are believed to be juveniles. Georgia offers some such services now. The commission is to review best practices elsewhere and return with recommendations by Dec. 31.

The resolution authored by Rep. Buzz Brockway (R-Lawrenceville) noted that an estimated 400 girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia and that half of them were first exploited between the ages of 12 and 14. The FBI says Atlanta is among the 14 U.S. cities with the highest incidence of child prostitution.

In another bill passed this year, the Legislature expanded the scope of so-called "mandatory reporters" -- currently police, teachers, medical personnel and child welfare workers -- who must report possible child abuse to authorities.

The new definition, inspired by the allegations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, will include coaches at recreation centers and at public and private schools. The clergy, with a limited exception for information obtained in a confession, also must now report possible abuse.

The provision is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform package, which also removes the statute of limitations for prosecuting sex offenses when the victim is under 16.

Bills that did not pass this year's legislative session include:

House Bill 272 by Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), which would revoke the right to a rehearing for some juveniles facing incarceration. Currently, young defendants may demand that a case be reheard by a juvenile court judge if they had been sentenced by an associate judge.

House Bill 1078, by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette), which would have helped child prostitutes to vacate past findings of delinquency if they could prove they were victims of human trafficking.

Senate Bill 31 by Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur), which would allow parents and legal guardians to sit in on a consultation between their child and an attorney without the child having to waive attorney-client privilege.

Governor’s Budget Concerns Sunk Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite but Cost of Not Passing it Could be Higher

Volumes of the Georgia CodeBudget concerns stalled juvenile justice reform in Georgia this week, as the Georgia Senate declined to take it up in the waning days of the 2012 legislative session. But what about the costs of not passing juvenile justice reform?

The proposed 246-page Child Protection and Public Safety Act would have strengthened programs for foster children, established community-based help rather than incarceration for many troubled juveniles and bolstered their legal representation, among many other improvements.

Those reforms, which advocates say would save taxpayers money, may now be pushed back at least another year due to questions about the expense associated with other aspects of the bill.

The act, for instance, would require that the state help children become independent once they age out of the foster-care system on their 18th birthdays. Those young adults would get housing subsidies, tutoring, job skills training and other support until age 21 and emergency assistance until age 23.

Those kids once were completely on their own when they turned 18, and some drifted into homelessness and petty crime. Now they are eligible for some of those services, but the state is not required to offer them to every child.

"It means kids who are the most difficult and most challenging and need the services the worst probably won’t get them," said Kirsten Widner, policy director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center and a key advocate for the bill.

Pat Willis, executive director of the non-profit Voices for Georgia's Children, noted those programs would have helped kids who are currently leaving foster care, not hypothetical cases.

"This isn’t some unknown kid who might need services," Willis said. "This is a child whose name we know."

The bill drew unanimous support from the Georgia House of Representatives and the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its sponsor decided Monday not to seek a Senate floor vote after learning of Gov. Nathan Deal's fiscal concerns.

“The governor knows we need significant reform in our juvenile justice system, and he credits the legislators involved for their excellent work on this bill," Deal's director of communications, Brian Robinson, said Tuesday in a written statement. "He agrees with the direction of the legislation, but right now there are too many unknowns about the costs involved. Estimates vary widely, but we do know that it comes with a hefty price tag. The governor would like to see that issue resolved, so that we can move forward on these needed improvements.”

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill to July 2013, hoping to win enough support for passage while allowing for a thorough analysis of its fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill at all without having a good look at the price tag.

Retired Conasauga Circuit district attorney Kermit McManus, now a lobbyist for the state's Prosecuting Attorneys Council, warned Tuesday that the state had failed to deliver on earlier funding promises.

When state officials reduced short-term juvenile detentions from 90 days to no more than 30, it committed to pay for locally-based alternative treatment programs across the state. But, McManus said, funding wasn't there to follow through on that promise.

"That part is a scary part to prosecutors," McManus said.

Relying more on treatment and less on detention for delinquents "probably would be a better system," he said.  "We haven’t seen it and we are skeptical."

District attorneys called particular attention to the bill's requirement that a prosecutor handle every delinquency case in juvenile court. They said DAs would need $15.9 million a year to pay for the personnel and operating costs, nearly twice what a study commissioned by juvenile advocates had estimated.

Supporters of the bill said many costs projected by prosecutors and others really covered the cost of complying with the current juvenile code. Advocacy groups didn't have the money to rebut detractors' claims or to calculate the financial benefits of the bill more precisely, said Willis of Voices for Georgia's Children.

"We had some money to look at costs but we never had the kind of resources that would have taken the deep dive," she said. "As non-profits, we just have not had the resources to do that major analysis … [of] not only what does it cost, but what does it save."

Willis said the coalition pushing reform, while disappointed, made progress this year in forging agreement on Georgia's future policy for abused and delinquent children.

"We take some energy from the fact that we did build consensus among all of the stakeholders that this is the right law," she said. "We do have a lot of confidence that the leadership is ready to work with us. We’re certainly ready to work with the leadership."

Photo by Emory Law

Georgia Juvenile Code Rewrite Suffers Last-Minute Death

Rep. Wendell Willard - (R) Sandy Springs - File photo

Lingering questions about the state’s cost for prosecutors and public defenders in juvenile courts scuttled the bill Monday at the 11th hour.  House Bill 641, an overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile code for deprived, troubled and delinquent children, remained stuck in the Senate Rules Committee and is not scheduled for a vote before the Legislature adjourns Thursday.

Rep. Wendell Willard, sponsor of the bill, did not push for a floor vote after hearing that Gov. Nathan Deal still had budget concerns, said Kirsten Widner, policy director at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center.

“As best as we can discern, there are enough funding questions about some of the other priorities from the governor’s platform ... that he felt like he needed to make some tough budget decisions, and something had to give,” Widner said.

The governor’s office did not have time, Widner said, to reconcile last-minute disputes about the real cost of the reforms.

“There are such wildly different estimates and they didn’t have the time to get to the bottom of all of that, to work through all the numbers and really understand them,” she said.

Sponsors had pushed back the effective date of the bill by a year to allow for a thorough analysis of the bill’s fiscal impact. But district attorneys and county governments continued to raise doubts about passing the bill without having a good look at the price tag.

Photo by Emory Law

Funding for Juvenile Code is Major Concern as Legislature Winds Down

ga state house squareWildly divergent estimates of the pricetag for Georgia's proposed juvenile code rewrite continue to swirl around the Capitol as lawmakers return for their last three days of 2012.

The 246-page bill has cleared the state House and is expected to come before the full Senate this week, possibly Tuesday, with only minor changes. Gov. Nathan Deal's office continues to crunch the numbers to help him decide whether the state budget can absorb the expense.

"We have solid support in the General Assembly, and we are hopeful the governor will support it as well," said Kirsten Widner, lobbyist for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center. "If he's not on board, you can't achieve the goals of the legislation."

The new code, which updates and reorganizes decades of laws addressing delinquency and deprivation cases, would authorize a broad range of services for so-called "Children in Need of Services," who often fall through the cracks now and wind up in the juvenile justice system. The annual cost of those programs, and others to help foster children, is projected to be about $6.4 million.

The disagreements focus on the bill's requirement for prosecutors -- a role often filled now by probation or intake officers -- in any Juvenile Court proceeding where a youth faces detention. Those accused youth, who often waive the right to an attorney now, would also be guaranteed the chance to consult an attorney before deciding whether to waive representation.

Agencies that would provide the lawyers to prosecute and defend youths say court-related costs could top $20 million a year. Advocates pushing the bill estimate those annual expenses will run no more than $8.9 million, perhaps much less.

Much of the money in that higher estimate would help address existing needs, not new requirements of the bill, Widner said.

"We have an underfunded system and people see this as an opportunity to recoup some of the funds that are missing," she said. "We're already doing these things. It's not that new."

Under current law, though, district attorneys must handle juvenile cases only if a judge asks. Prosecutors argue that it's unrealistic to expect county governments, particularly in rural areas, to shoulder the cost of what they label an unfunded mandate.

"The counties are struggling mightily … and they’re simply not going to do it," said Kermit McManus, a retired district attorney from northwest Georgia who lobbies for the state Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

Sponsors of the legislation have delayed the effective date of the new code to July 2013 -- a one-year reprieve. They are seeking passage of the bill now and asking state and local court officials to have faith that the money will follow.

Prosecutors say they've heard similar promises before for state funding of mental health and other community-based programs for troubled youth.

"That's never happened – anywhere," McManus said. "If the state says it will provide the money, we believe it’s never going to happen."

Even in courts that already have prosecutors, the district attorneys say they'll need more money. Fulton County DA Paul Howard, for instance, said he would need three times as much as the $850,000 that the county set aside for his office's Juvenile Court work this year. That would pay the salaries of five more attorneys, six investigators, two victim advocates and 12 support staffers.

In neighboring Douglas County, the district attorney's office stopped handling Juvenile Court prosecutions in the 1990s due to other demands. Now, Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker said, the county pays an attorney to prosecute those cases.

For about $85,000 a year, Walker said, the arrangement is less than ideal.

"He does everything," she said. "He does filings, he does petitions, he does investigations, he does service of the subpoenas."

District Attorney David McDade estimates he would need an additional $386,000 to assume those duties, an amount that the judge said is not unreasonable.

"He's looking at breaking out those functions the way they are typically broken out in a district attorney's office," she said.

The judge acknowledged those expenses are not mandated by House Bill 641, even though "we would love to see that kind of funding."

Advocates point out that the bill would not require that district attorneys handle every Juvenile Court prosecution, but would also allow arrangements like Douglas County has now.

Widner, the Barton Center's lobbyist, said she understands the anxieties associated with making big changes in the juvenile courts without deciding exactly how to pay for it.

But, she added, "those are budgeting decisions that are made separately from ... looking at what the public policy should be."

At the county level, though, court officials know that those funding decisions will determine whether the new juvenile code is a success.

"Part of the tension here is what’s to be done by the state and what … by the county," Judge Walker said. "When you’re the person who's responsible for [implementation], the last thing you want to see happen is a code go into effect without the funding."

Lawmakers Advance Georgia Juvenile Code Despite Funding Concerns

The proposed overhaul of Georgia’s juvenile justice and child protection laws cleared another hurdle Wednesday, even as local governments continued to fret about the potential financial burden.

The bill, five years in the making, would update Georgia’s juvenile code for the first time in 40 years, modernizing procedures and treatments for handling abused, neglected and delinquent children. The state Senate Judiciary Committee recommended passage of a House version of the bill Wednesday afternoon on a unanimous vote.

In endorsing the House legislation, the senators agreed that the state’s financially troubled Georgia Public Defender Standards Council should continue to make sure indigent juveniles facing detention have a lawyer. An earlier Senate version of the bill would still have guaranteed attorneys for those youths but would not have made the council responsible.

County governments, which pay the bulk of the costs to operate juvenile courts, still worry that they’ll be stuck with the tab for more prosecutors and defense attorneys, said Debra Nesbit, lobbyist for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“We’re not realizing any savings at the local level,” Nesbit told committee members.

Advocates for the bill disagree, noting that increased reliance on mediation and other improvements would reduce local court costs.

Wildly divergent cost projections for complying with the new juvenile code continue to surface as it works its way through the legislative machinery. The bill would require a prosecutor for every delinquency proceeding and consultation with a defense attorney before a child could waive his or her right to counsel.

Local district attorneys, for instance, say they’ll need another $15.9 million a year to handle the new caseload, while a study commissioned by child advocacy groups calculates the cost at $8.6 million. The public defender council says personnel alone will cost $3.5 million more, while the same study puts the price tag at around $400,000.

Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), the bill’s sponsor in the House, suggested those agencies may have embraced higher estimates “to make sure everything’s covered.”

The effective date of the reforms have been pushed back a year — to July 2013 — so state budget officials have time to nail down the anticipated costs. Willard said the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget may have better estimates by the time the bill hits the Senate floor, probably next week.

“I think everyone’s waiting for the governor’s nod of the head,” he said. “He’s doing his best to do that for us.”

The Senate committee OK’d five amendments Wednesday that Willard said would save $35 million or more.

The biggest change would permanently bar judges from sentencing youths to so-called short-term detentions of more than 30 days. That limit — reduced from 60 days in recent years as a cost-saving measure — was set to expire next year.

Longer detentions could cost the state between $23 million and $31 million, Willard said.

“That’s major money,” he said.

More importantly, he said, short-term detentions are the wrong approach for dealing with troubled youth “because you’re taking them away from their community, out of school [and] away from their families.”

The code revisions emphasize community-based treatment rather than detention for many cases, a model that Willard said will save Georgia money and put more troubled youths back on the right track.

“There are savings not only in dollars,” he said, “but savings in the lives of these children and their future.”

Photo by Jim Walls | JJIE.org

UPDATED: Guards at Rome, Georgia RYDC Cleared of Inciting Violence But Questions Remain

Whitney Bonds with her mother, Haley

State officials in Georgia say they have cleared three guards of accusations that they incited violence among girls held at a Rome juvenile detention facility. One of the guards was fired, though, for failing to prevent the Dec. 7 attack at the heart of the allegations, and the other two disciplined for unrelated policy violations.

Witness statements (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) in the Department of Juvenile Justice's case file, obtained by JJIE, told investigators that guards had offered them food as bribes to fight other juveniles. A male detainee made similar uncorroborated allegations, the file shows, and the girl accused in the Dec. 7 attack told an investigator that one of the guards told her she wouldn't get in trouble for it.

DJJ “weighed the totality of witness statements and information” in a report that found insufficient evidence to conclude that officers were promising food or other favors to juveniles who assaulted other juveniles, the Department said in a statement.

The department's announcement late Monday of those findings characterized such allegations as false. "Statements from some staff and residents alike at the Rome RYDC portrayed the accusations as based on 'rumors going around' ... girls 'talking trash' ... and youth in detention 'telling lies on officers,' " the department's news release said.

The investigation focused on charges by Whitney Bonds, then 16, who was beaten and her nose broken Dec. 7 by another girl being held at the Bob Richards juvenile detention center in Rome. Guards put her attacker up to it, Whitney alleged, because she had told her mother that the guards had offered her food from McDonald's if she agreed to assault another youth a day earlier.

“This was a disturbing allegation,” Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner said in the department's statement. “We would not tolerate that kind of Officer Misconduct at any of our secure facilities."

DJJ said guards Deborah Adams, Geynah Carmichael and India Jones passed polygraph exams when they denied promoting fights at the detention center. No polygraph exam was given to Whitney, who volunteered for one, or other juvenile witnesses.

Jones, though, was dismissed for not preventing the attack on Whitney even though she'd heard the assailant talking about it minutes earlier. Several witnesses said Jones told the girl, "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," and went back to her paperwork.

Video of the attack showed the girl attacked Whitney after asking permission to use a water fountain, the DJJ report found. One witness said Jones "acted like she didn't know it was happening"; the video showed Jones responded three seconds after the assault started, the investigator reported.

Another guard, who Whitney said harassed and cursed her, was fired earlier for failing to complete her training.

Late Tuesday, DJJ announced Adams and Carmichael had been placed on a one-day paid suspension called Decision Making Leave, in which they are required to decide whether to resign or to "fully commit to acceptable job performance," Buckner said. Any future disciplinary action would result in their firings, the department said.

Haley Bonds, Whitney's mother, said she remains convinced of the guards' complicity in the fights.

"It's plain to me that they're guilty," she said. Whitney "still swears it's true."

Girls housed in the same cell block as Whitney gave conflicting accounts of the events of Dec. 6 and 7, according to written statements in DJJ's investigative file. Some girls backed up Bonds' allegations, while others said the guards had nothing to do with the fights. According to a guard and some juveniles, Whitney's attacker said she did it so authorities would send her back to the juvenile detention center nearest her home.

The investigator also noted some witnesses were reluctant to answer questions about the fights:

"When asked, [deleted] said some of the female juveniles are afraid to tell the truth because when staff finds out they will treat the juveniles like sh**.  [Deleted] said if the staff get fired the other staff will treat them like sh** cause they got their friends fired."

One boy told an investigator that guards at the Rome RYDC offered juveniles candy to beat others that the guards didn't like. A prison official said the boys' description of one such guard did not match any of the officers who worked in that boy's cell block, the investigator reported.

JJIE obtained the investigative files from Haley Bonds, who received them last week from DJJ investigators after submitting a request under the Georgia Open Records Act. (The department charged her $135.) On Wednesday, DJJ released a 38-page summary that contained investigative findings and many of the same statements.

Whitney's assailant, in her statements, denied that guards "hired" her to attack Bonds. "I got mad because she was talking all that shit," she said in one statement. "So when she came back I f***ed her ass up."

Whitney Bonds on the night she was attacked. Photo: Haley Bonds

The victim in the Dec. 6 incident, though, said she thought Adams and Carmichael had planned the attack. Her statement mentions "bribery of McDonalds."

Two girls said Whitney's assailant had been talking about it two days earlier. Others said the girl planned the attack that night when she heard that Whitney was telling her mother about guards' involvement in the fight the day before.

It's unclear how Whitney's assailant might have learned what Whitney told her mother in the visitation room. One witness said Jones, the guard who was fired, heard about it, returned to the cell block and said, "Big mouth up there running her mouth."

The file shows that Adams, Carmichael and a supervisor, Lt. Amanda Samples, had been counseled just a week earlier against bringing food or drink from outside to the youths without authorization.

The "coaching session" apparently stemmed from an incident in November when guards brought chicken wings, popcorn and other treats in for several girls. DJJ found that Adams and Carmichael had left the cell block for nearly 90 minutes that day, thereby abandoning their posts.

Both Adams and Carmichael, in written statements, denied trying to persuade any of the girls to harm others.

"If we done wrong by giving the girls wings and popcorn we are wrong," Carmichael wrote, "but I didn't get anybody to jump anybody for nothing."

Which Bills Survived Crossover Day in the Georgia Assembly?

A proposed overhaul of Georgia's juvenile code remains alive at the State Capitol, but bills addressing school attendance and over-medicating foster children died this week as the Legislature completed its 30th day. Or, if not legally dead, the bills are on life-support.

The General Assembly designates Day 30 of each year's session as "Crossover Day," the deadline by which the state House or Senate must pass a bill and send it over to the other chamber. Bills that don't make it are dead, but can be revived by tacking the language onto another measure that remains under consideration.

The Senate's version of the juvenile-code rewrite -- a mammoth, five-year, 243-page reorganization and update of laws dealing with delinquent, unruly and neglected children -- died Wednesday without a vote by the full chamber. But the House last week unanimously passed a nearly identical version, which now becomes the vehicle for senators to continue working on the bill.

The Legislature has 10 more official days before adjournment -- plenty of time to reconcile relatively minor differences on the bill between the two chambers. The House wants the state-run public defender system to continue representing youths in juvenile court who are facing possible incarceration. The Senate bill would have removed that duty due to cost concerns, leaving it up to county governments to pick up the tab.

Also staying alive is a Senate bill to toughen the law against contraband in juvenile detention facilities. The bill, pushed by the state Department of Juvenile Justice, would add cellphones and other electronic devices to the list of proscribed items. It also more clearly defines the area where such items may not be brought in from outside. Violators could face up to five years in prison.

The Senate this week also passed a bill that would make it a misdemeanor for an eyewitness to fail to report sexual or other abuse of a juvenile. Similar bills have been introduced in statehouses across the country in the wake of the recent scandal at Penn State University, where football coach Joe Paterno lost his job over the school's failure to report an alleged sexual assault by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Falling by the wayside Wednesday, though, were bills dealing with child prostitution, truancy and oversight for medications given to foster children.

Child prostitutes who have been victims of human trafficking will have to wait at least another year to see if they might be able to have their records expunged. A 2011 law allows juvenile court judges in delinquency hearings to consider evidence that youths were victimized by pimps or traffickers, but the House this year did not act in time on a bill sponsored by Rep. Jay Neal (R-LaFayette) to allow that evidence to be used to vacate past findings of delinquency.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) hasn't given up on two of her bills. House Bill 821, which didn't get a House vote despite the support of the Education Committee, would have held parents criminally accountable if their kids are not enrolled in school or have accumulated five or more unexcused absences. Violators would face up to 30 days in jail.

Oliver said Thursday that she's working on several avenues to keep the bill alive by attaching the language to another one.

The Decatur lawmaker says she's also hopeful that state officials, without a legislative mandate, will begin to monitor mood- and behavior-altering medications given to Georgia's foster children.

The federal government requires that states come up with plans to make sure foster kids are not over-medicated with such psychotropic drugs, but Georgia has not yet done so.

Oliver's bill, which would require the state Department of Human Resources to develop those guidelines, never made it out of committee. The department, she said, is already discussing the issue with private advocacy groups.

"My primary goal was to get the attention of DHS publicly" and to nudge the department toward compliance, Oliver said.

Last month, a year-long study concluded that Georgia exceeds the national average in prescribing psychotropic medications to children in foster care. The report, prepared by the Barton Child Law & Policy Center, called for clearer rules for obtaining informed consent of patients, oversight standards and a ban on the use of psychotropic medications as "chemical restraints" or for the convenience of caregivers.