image_pdfimage_print

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. My colleagues and I have valued her consistent, credible voice for that agency, through her various roles as legal counsel, deputy commissioner, and finally commissioner. In the halls of the Capitol, Ms. Howell is highly respected for her thoughtfulness, integrity and openness to the ideas about how to improve our state’s juvenile justice system. Her articulate representation has served DJJ and Georgia very well.

I have also had the pleasure of working with Ms. Howell in her capacity as a leader in the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the Georgia State Bar.  Ms. Howell was the co-chair of the YLD Juvenile Law Committee when it began work on the Proposed Model Juvenile Code for Georgia.  Her vision and leadership allowed this project to flourish, and to eventually serve as the foundation for significant system reform in the form of the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, which I am proud to sponsor as House Bill 641.  After her committee leadership, I watched Amy rise through the ranks of the YLD Executive Board, to become President of the YLD two terms ago. Her tenure as leader was a productive period for the YLD, filled with Ms. Howell’s innovative new projects, such as the Public Interest Internship Program and a new focus on unique needs of parents in the profession.

I understand that some concerns have been raised in this publication about Ms. Howell’s management of the agency.  I would caution readers to remember that personnel matters within an organization are difficult to judge from the outside. Because of the confidentiality and discretion appropriate to these delicate matters, administrators are not able to respond when allegations are made by people who are unfamiliar with all the facts. While I have not been privy to the specifics of the situations described in the article, I am confident that Commissioner Howell brought the same thoughtfulness and integrity to those decisions that she brings to all of her work.

Ultimately, now that my initial sadness has passed, I recognize that the DJJ’s loss is the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ gain. Ms. Howell’s legal talents led DJJ out of federal oversight, and she has the tenacity and skill to do the same for DBHDD with their new federal oversight. I am delighted that she will continue to play a critical role in the management of our state executive agencies, and look forward to working with her in her new capacity.

How Safe Are Georgia’s Youth Detention Facilities?

Isolation cell inside the Augusta YDC

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.  That agreement came after a DOJ investigation in 1997 found serious abuses, including overcrowding and abusive behavior by staff. Georgia agreed to improve conditions and signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Department.

While the MOA, which ended in 2009, led to improvements in education and medical care at the YDCs and put the focus on rehabilitation, it has failed to totally safeguard inmates and those officials working in them.

It may be uncertain how deep the problems run within Georgia’s YDCs, but there are some clear issues within at least a few.

In the Eastman facility, for example, a number of people who have worked there say both inmates and staff are at risk. Dormitories are often under-staffed, they say, and attacks against guards and between inmates are a regular occurrence.

Victoria Floyd was a juvenile corrections officer inside Eastman for four years from 2007 until 2011. She says she was assaulted multiple times by inmates who threw urine and feces on her and in one instance an inmate groped her buttocks.

“Those things happened because of poor staffing,” Floyd said. “Those times I was assaulted, I was the only officer in the unit or the only officer escorting residents.”

According to Floyd, she was routinely assigned by herself to guard dormitories housing 32 male inmates. In a perfect world, Floyd said, a unit would be staffed with three guards who would divide the inmates between them. In reality, Floyd felt fortunate if she was assigned a unit with one other guard, taking 16 inmates each. At times, she said, she didn’t feel safe.

Another former Eastman guard, who wished to remain anonymous, said the 32-to-1 ratios were not unusual at the YDC because the staff was too small, leading to high levels of violence. According to the DJJ policies manual, each facility sets it’s own standard ratio.

A DJJ official, however, said the ratio at Eastman, a facility that can hold 330 inmates, had been set at 16-1.

The environment inside Eastman, the former guard said, which houses older inmates aged 17 to 20 committed for violent crimes, is anything but positive. He added he was assaulted twice while he working as a correctional officer.

Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner-designee Gale Buckner declined to comment when asked what her assessment of Georgia’s YDCs are because she has not yet had a chance to assess the situation for herself.

Buckner was appointed Commissioner after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal assigned former Commissioner Amy Howell to a new role in another state agency. Buckner joins the DJJ at a difficult moment for the agency following the beating death of Jade Holder at the Augusta facility.

The six Youth Development Campuses run by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) are intended to “provide secure care, supervision and treatment services to youth who have been committed to the custody of DJJ,” according to the DJJ website. All of the YDCs are also accredited schools that allow inmates to finish high school or earn their GED. However, that has not always been so.

Georgia also operates 20 Regional Youth Detention Centers where youth are held for shorter periods of time while they await their hearings in juvenile court. The RYDCs typically house 30 to 40 inmates.

Former correctional officer Victoria Floyd says, while she believes in rehabilitation, she worries DJJ’s new policies are too lenient on kids, leaving other inmates at risk.

“If one kid assaults another kid he may get a slap on the wrist,” she said, “but now the victim may be afraid to leave their room or go to education classes.” That means a guard must stay behind with the youth decreasing the amount of guards in the classes. That puts everyone, kids and guards, at risk, she says. Handing out tougher punishments will discourage further violence and reduce the chances of more serious incidents such as the one in Augusta earlier this week.

“I feel that for the future of Eastman YDC, in order to progress, things need to change as far as a stricter environment for the youth,” Floyd said.

And a large part of that involves hiring more correctional officers to reduce the ratio of guards to inmates, she says.

So why hasn’t the DJJ hired more guards?

Funds allocated specifically for YDCs in the DJJ budget have fluctuated over the last eight years, ranging anywhere from as high as $103 million in 2004 to as low as $61 million in 2011. (The 2012 budget allocates $70 million for YDCs.) It is not clear how much of that money is designated for staff and correctional officers in the YDCs or why Eastman is maintaining high ratios of guards to inmates.

According to one former administrator who worked at Eastman and asked to remain anonymous, DJJ has been fortunate that more inmates haven’t been hurt. He says the problem originates at the top of the DJJ, not in the YDCs themselves and that politics plays a large role in the decision-making.

 

SIGN UP FOR OUR WEEKLY EBLAST FOR UPDATES ON THIS STORY

Photo by John Ernst courtesy The Augusta Chronicle

 

The Departure of a Fine and Caring DJJ Commissioner

Giovan Bazan, 21, speaks at the 11th annual CHRIS KIDS fundraiser in September, 2011. Atlanta, Ga.
Giovan Bazan, 21, speaks at the 11th annual CHRIS KIDS fundraiser in September, 2011. Atlanta, Ga.

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?"

That is, until Commissioner Amy Howell arrived.

Commissioner Howell has been a champion for DJJ youth and has worked diligently to create services for youth in DJJ custody but also to bring others to the table who are equally interested in positive outcomes as well.

I have had the distinct pleasure of working with Commissioner Howell during my past two years as being an advocate for young people through Georgia Youth EmpowerMEnt an initiative of the Multi- Agency Alliance for Children.

I have spoken along with Commissioner Howell at many state Senate Judiciary Committee earings at the Capitol as well as many stakeholder meetings on HB 641, the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, as well as various other bills advocating for the best interest of youth in DJJ. This includes measures such as the Good Behavior Bill which affords youth in juvenile detention an opportunity for early release contingent upon successful rehabilitation.

Commissioner Howell’s title just doesn't serve her justice. The many sacrifices she's made to improve the way DJJ serves youth, as well as the smaller seemingly inconsequential changes she has implemented, are like those of a caring mother.

I am happy to say I know Amy Howell. I'm honored to have been able to work with, as well as witness her efforts to positively impact the lives of the youth in DJJ, or as she says, "my kids," all of some 22,000 of them.

Amy Howell recently held the title of Commissioner. In the eyes of thousands of youth in the DJJ as well as my own, she has and always will continue to possess one, and only one, title:  Shero.

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.

“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.

SIGN UP FOR OUR WEEKLY EBLAST FOR UPDATES ON THIS STORY

Georgia DJJ Commissioner to Resign

Commissioner Amy Howell DJJ GJSAAmy 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." 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.

A spokesperson for the Department of Behavioral Health denied any knowledge of Howell's move saying only that Dr. Frank E. Shelp will remain commissioner.

In the letter, Howell reflected on her short tenure as DJJ commissioner.

"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."

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.

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.

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

Commissioner Amy Howell DJJ GJSA

 

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.

“I genuinely want what is best for the young people in our care, so how can you not make it personal?” Howell said. “I believe that nobody gets anywhere alone and as adults we have this tremendous opportunity to change the direction of the young people that we’re working with. Their future isn’t cast in stone yet for many of them.”

A self-described realist, Howell didn’t sugarcoat her speech opening the Georgia Juvenile Service Association’s (GJSA) 40th Training Summit this week.

GJSA training summit-2While commending the work that has been done in the field, Howell pushed for a continual pursuit of excellence, adding that she understood the added strain of dealing with a larger number of kids on a tight budget.

“As an agency I think the challenge ahead of us is redistributing our operations based on where we are from a budgetary stand point right now so that they meet the needs of the communities we serve,” she said.

As the only professional organization for youth workers in the state, the GJSA Training Summit marked Howell’s first opportunity since taking office in early 2011 to address such a large cross-section of the field and DJJ employees.

“I expect you to take pride in what you do,” she said. “You’re in this field not because it’s just a job, not because you’re getting rich, but because this is a calling.”

While the GJSA is primed on expanding its membership base into other areas of juvenile justice and youth services, DJJ employees still comprise a large portion of its core.

Photos by Clay Duda/JJIE.org.

Blast From the Past: Thoughts on Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System, Past and Present

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The Georgia Juvenile Service Association’s (GJSA) 40th Training Summit gets under way this morning, but last night a cross section of GJSA Life Members and long-time professionals flooded the 15th floor of the Desoto Hilton for a Blast from the Past social.

In a room swimming with decades of knowledge, JJIE wanted to know how, and if, the juvenile system in Georgia has improved through the years.

"I think there has been improvement, but there's room for  more improvement, said Rob Rosenbloom, recently retired deputy commissioner of Georgia's Department of Juvenile Justice. "We still lock up too many kids who are low-risk offenders. The challenge is to have enough room for the higher risk kids who really need that kind of service.”

Gwendolyn Skinner, director of Devereux Georgia Treatment Network, and former deputy commissioner of the DJJ and a 30-year professional in the field agreed with Rosenbloom.

“It’s not only just room for sheer numbers of kids,” Skinner said. “It’s how you spend your money, because if you’re spending your money on the lower level children then you don’t have the money to buy the treatment, services and support for the higher risk kids.”

Since 1969, GJSA has been the only professional organization for rank-and-file juvenile workers and those in related fields in Georgia. For youth workers like Laura Pike of the rural Thomas County Court system, the networking and professional development opportunities are priceless.

“Outside of conferences like this or state-wide training, which is not offered as much as it was used to be due to budgetary constraints, I don’t get to meet a lot of professionals within my own organization,” said Pike, a past president of GJSA who oversees four counties in southwest Georgia. “I think juvenile probation officers and juvenile workers in general need that kind of professional organization to come together and share resources and get training.”

“When I first started [the DJJ was] a division of youth services, so funds were very scarce,” Pike said. “What we’re looking at now, because of the designated felony statutes, is most of our youth development campuses now are 100 percent full of designated felony kids. Therefore, there’s no YDC [Youth Detention Center] beds for regular commitment kids and they have to have a higher priority to get in the youth development campus.

“I don’t have a problem with that, because I’m fine with community treatment if the community treatment resources are there and that’s where the challenge comes in,” she added.

Chris West, a former assistant deputy commissioner with DJJ and GJSA advisory board member, agreed Georgia’s youth services have improved dramatically through the years. “One, it’s gotten us out of the memorandum of agreement that we were abusing and neglecting kids in our facilities." West said, drawing on his 35 years of experience inside the DJJ. “We’ve reduced and diverted kids outside of institutions so it’s provided community service for those kids.

“Budget issues are the real big deal,” said West. “Because of the budget issues, we've had to cut services and those services are going to affect how we deal with kids in the community.”

Much like the economy, the GJSA has had its ups and downs, according to many legacy members, in part due to its reliance on governmental and departmental budgets to fund conferences and membership. This week’s training summit marks the first large event hosted by the GJSA in recent years and a push to widen the membership base well beyond the public sector.

As West pointed out, however, GJSA hasn’t been the only organization affected by budget restrictions.

“From the angle of kids who enter the juvenile justice system, I think that in some ways things got better," said Wells Kilgore, Chief Operating Office at Morningstar Children and Family Services –- an organization that provides mental health services to developmentally disabled and troubled youth. "But then funding has fallen off, so we may have seen some improvements and then we’ve seen some dips in those improvements.”

Others see improvements coming because of the leadership of Amy Howell, the commissioner of the DJJ.

“Overall, especially with our new commissioner, we’re heading in the right direction,” said Lisa Casey Bryson, program coordinator with the DJJ. “The number of kids has increased faster than the resources can keep up with them, so it’s hard to take the resources we have and help the number of kids that need to be helped.”

In the end, Bryson said, “it’s just trying to pull the resources together and get the community to be more responsible for kids.”

 

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."

Youth at both the Griffin and Blakely RYDCs will be transferred to nearby detention centers so that they may remain close to their families.

But Law explained that closing the facility in Blakely will make the job of Sheriff's deputies much more difficult as they have to transport juveniles in Early County to court once a month. Deputies, he said, used to have to go across town to pick up youth at the detention center, now because of the closing, "we have to go half way across the state to pick them up. No, we are not the least bit happy about this."

The nearest facility to the Blakely RYDC is in Albany, Ga., approximately 50 miles away.

Law added that closing the facility would also have an adverse economic impact to the local community.

"This is going to have a big impact on everyone, law enforcement, the kids, their families and the community. This is just bad news," he said.

A DJJ press release said that employees at the closing RYDCs would be allowed transfers to other DJJ facilities and would not lose their jobs.

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

Judge Steven Teske and Karen Worthington

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

“We should be distinguishing between the kids who make us mad versus the kids that scare us,” he said.  “I want the kids that scare us [in my court], those who are truly delinquent.”

According to Judge Sharon Hill, the executive director of Georgia Appleseed, schools are the most important piece of the of the juvenile justice system.

“It is crazy,” she said during the discussion, “that we discipline by withholding academic achievement.  We need to look at how do we keep [kids] in class and perhaps graduating.”

“So goes juvenile crime, so goes graduation,” Judge Teske added.   “Not every educational failure is a hardened criminal, but nearly every hardened criminal is an educational failure.”

Stefan Campagna, Katie Self and Jack Levine

A third panel of experts convened for a discussion about youth courts.  With many states facing budget shortfalls, youth courts have become an affordable alternative with real results.  Youth courts save Florida $70 million each year, according to Katie Self, Executive Director of the Teen Court of Sarasota, Florida.

Letting teenagers judge other teens “provides positive peer pressure,” Self added, making teens less likely to reoffend.

Stefan Campagna was headed to prison when a Florida judge gave him the chance to go through the Sarasota, Florida teen court program.  He had a record number of felonies. During the program Campagna made the decision to change his life.

Today, he is a law student at Hofstra University Law School in New York and he is helping create a youth court there:

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.”