Talking Back to Zero Tolerance

In the year that I have worked as a juvenile defender, I have noticed patterns in the types of cases that land on my desk.  For instance, now that the school year is in full swing, the overwhelming majority of my juvenile caseload arises from school discipline issues.  It seems -- at least here in southeast Georgia -- as though schools are either no longer interested or no longer equipped to handle discipline in-house.

Almost every public school in my rural circuit has police presence in the form of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a uniformed police officer who maintains an office on the school campus.  These officers maintain such a vigilant school presence to deter criminal activity such as drug possession/sale, weapon possession and other violent or dangerous activity. The reality is quite different.

Increasingly, local school administrators are relying on these SROs and a broad Georgia statute that criminalizes “disruption or interference with operation of public schools” to handle children with behavioral problems. What exactly are the definitions for “disruption” and “interference”? That is a great question, as the Georgia Code fails to define either term for the purposes of explaining exactly what conduct the state Legislature sought to criminalize. However, I can tell you that “disrespectful language” and “refusing to follow the commands of teacher” can land a child an invitation to juvenile court.

A child who is found to be delinquent of “disrupting or interfering with the operation of public schools” in Georgia, is subject to the punishment of a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This likely means probation for a length of time with a litany of conditions for the child to comply with, but could also result in a 30-day stay in a Regional Youth Detention Center.

When I was in school, disruptive children were punished by being assigned extra homework, given detention, in- school suspension or out- of- school suspension. The severity of the punishment varied with the severity of the actions; for example, talking back to the teacher might result in after-school detention, while getting into a playground fight would likely result in suspension.

It seemed that pulling the child out of school was a last resort. Now, with many school systems imposing “zero-tolerance” policies for school rule violations, children who are already at risk of being marginalized due to learning disabilities or untreated/undiagnosed behavioral health issues are being pushed out of the learning environment.

My juvenile clients appearing in court as a result of school-related behavioral issues overwhelmingly are minorities. By criminalizing behavior that could be remedied by detention or suspension, these children are being pulled from class before they ever even receive their punishment. Each time the child has to come to court to address the charges, the child is absent from school and is further entrenched in the juvenile-criminal justice system.

What is even more disturbing is that on occasion I will read a school incident report detailing a child’s misbehavior and find that in fact, the child had already been punished by the school. Because corporal punishment was a thing of the past by the time I was attending public school, I was surprised to find that a school incident report would sometimes indicate that the school had already administered corporal punishment on the child, then sent him on to court by pressing criminal charges. This struck me as duplicative, and I argued such on the child’s behalf, to no avail.

Undoubtedly, schools must take strong measures to protect children from drugs, weapons and violence while they are at school. Further, some would argue that a potential 30-day juvenile jail sentence serves to deter disruptive behavior.   However, parents and children alike are often stunned to find themselves in court due to a student’s inappropriate outburst or argument with a teacher.  In my experience schools fail to fully explain the potential consequences of such behavior.

Zero tolerance policies that allow a child who swears at a teacher to be punished as harshly as one who strikes a teacher, are only serving to highlight injustice in the criminal justice system and clog juvenile courts.


Selena Teji On California’s Broken Juvenile Detention System

In 1858, the San Francisco Industrial School, California’s first large juvenile facility opened its doors and ushered in a new era of large dormitory-style institutions that would plague California to the present day.  Rife with scandal, abuse, violence and a significant deficit of programming, congregate care institutions have proven a failed model since the 19th century. While Missouri and Washington have abandoned this broken system and rebuilt their juvenile justice systems anew, focusing on smaller therapeutic regional facilities; California continues to fixate on an archaic system with large training schools that cannot be repaired.

Currently, California operates a dual system of juvenile justice -- probation, group homes, ranches and camps are provided by its 58 counties, while the state provides youth prisons reserved for adolescents who have committed a serious or violent offense as defined in the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code.

All parole and reentry services are provided by the counties. Currently, there are only 1,193 youths housed at the state level, approximately 190 of them are juveniles tried as adults but who are too young to be housed in adult prison.

The state youth prisons, operated by the Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF, formerly the California Youth Authority), have a devastating history. In 1996, California housed approximately 10,000 juveniles in its youth prisons, at more than 150 percent its capacity. As with all overcrowded correctional institutions nation-wide, these facilities were rampant with violence, gang activity and abuse. Programming was minimal, and suicide rates were high.

In 2003, after a string of investigations and public outcry, a lawsuit was brought against the state demanding it improve its conditions to a constitutionally-mandated level of care. This was followed in 2007 by Senate Bill 81, requiring that only the highest risk offenders could be housed in the state facilities, resulting in a dramatic decrease in its population, to 1,193 youth today.

Seven years after the court ordered the state to reform its facilities, California is still struggling to meet its mandate. While progress has been made in reducing its population and improving its medical care, many of the needed reforms have not happened.

 According to a recent 2011 audit, incarcerated youth with mental health needs are receiving education in closets, showers and storerooms due to inadequate staffing and high levels of ward violence, if they receive education at all. Many youth are housed in confinement for 23 hours at a time, violating institutional policies and “willfully disobeying” the court’s order. On Oct. 27, 2011, the court will decide if DJF will be held in contempt of court for its continued inappropriate use of isolation.

Since the 1980's, California has known that the optimal way to serve this high-risk youth population is to deliver programs locally and in smaller facilities. Individual counties such as San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz have already developed and implemented effective interventions locally and currently serve this population with high rates of success. By innovative use of Medicaid funding for example, San Francisco County has been able to provide specialized mental health services to at-risk youth, avoiding reliance on incarceration or out-of-home placement.

The state, the courts, national experts and advocates all agreed on what is needed. A model juvenile justice system emphasizes alternatives to incarceration, local community-based services and evidence-based programs that target the highest-needs youth. Individual counties should collaborate to provide a cohesive and consistent approach to juvenile justice statewide, and California's state role should be limited to monitoring, funding and coordinating these county efforts.

Why then has it not happened? In February of this year Gov. Jerry Brown proposed the elimination of the DJF and realignment of all juvenile offenders to the counties. However, concern about county capacity fueled by interest groups such as the California District Attorneys Association, and an ingrained institutional culture has prevented California from breaking the cycle of youth incarceration and state-dependence.  Rather, California continues to invest in an archaic and harmful state-managed juvenile justice system in the hopes that it can be reformed, at the annual cost of more than $224,000 per incarcerated youth.

California is clinging to a broken and irreparable system. Instead, it should abandon the derelict institutional model, and build a more meaningful and responsible approach to change.

Incarcerated Louisiana Youth Overmedicated into Submission, Investigation Finds

Strong antipsychotic medications are being prescribed to incarcerated juveniles across Louisiana despite lacking diagnoses for the conditions they were designed to treat, according to an investigative report by New Orlean’s The Lens.

The medications are meant to help with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. After examining their records, The Lens found 22 percent of medications prescribed in eight Louisiana facilities were designed to treat bipolar disorder. But, only five percent of diagnoses were of bipolar, the investigative news site found. No diagnoses of schizophrenia were made.

The most common diagnosis (found in 20 percent of incarcerated juveniles) was “conduct disorder. " Symptoms of this disorder include defiant, impulsive behavior, drug use and criminal activity.

“There are some youth who should receive medications who aren’t,” Will Harrell, a federal monitor of juvenile justice systems, told The Lens. “But there’s also kids who are being medically restrained. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with disruptive kids by drugging them, than doing anything else.”

According to August Collins, director of youth advocacy at the Youth Empowerment Project, the drugs are used to numb the inmate into submission, making it difficult to rehabilitate them.

“We need to set stricter guidelines on prescribing this stuff and quit treating diagnosis of a kid as an assembly line,” Collins told The Lens. “We’ve had kids sleeping in classes like they’re stoned out of their minds. It’s difficult to give these kids insight into who they are if they can’t even stay awake.”

Florida County to Detain Kids in Adult Jail

Central Florida’s Polk County has become the first jurisdiction in that state to make plans under a new state law to house juveniles who are awaiting trial in adult jail rather than in a state juvenile detention center, according to, a Winter Haven, Fla., news site.

That change was made possible because Polk Sheriff Grady Judd pushed state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, to sponsor a bill in this year’s Florida Legislature that loosens the standards county jails must meet to house juveniles.

The state currently charges counties $237 per day to hold each juvenile in pretrial detention, and that rate is expected to rise later this year. Judd told that the county expects to spend $70-$90 per day per juvenile detainee. He predicts the switch will save the county around $1.5 million.

Previously, juveniles in pretrial detention fell under  state jurisdiction, but the new law would allow counties to retain custody from start to finish.  Under the new legislation, counties no longer have to meet state Department of Juvenile Justice standards, but must adhere to yet-to-be written guidelines set forth by the state's Model Jail Standards Committee.

County jails that opt to handle juvenile detainees still will have to meet a federal requirement that the juveniles not come into contact with adult detainees.

Currently, Polk County — which includes the small cities of Lakeland and Lake Wales, and has a population of more than 600,000 — houses 40 juveniles who face adult charges in its jail, while 50-60 juveniles who don’t face adult charges are housed in the state regional pretrial detention center.

A challenge for the county will be how to keep juveniles of different ages, genders and offender statuses separate from each other in the jail, so that, for example the youngest, mildest alleged offenders don’t face threats from the older, bigger and more violent detainees.



Linda Wagner on the Juvenile Justice System: How Much are Evidence-Based Practices Worth?

Using evidence-based practices in the juvenile justice system reduces delinquency and avoids costs. Those of us in the field hear this regularly – but it can be hard to see their impact on a day-to-day basis.

How do we know they work? Let's start at the beginning. What we commonly refer to as "evidence-based practices" in the juvenile justice field are based on over 40 years of research regarding what works to reduce juvenile crime. Unlike studies that look at single programs, this research looked at over a hundred studies and found what consistently worked to reduce crime versus what consistently made crime worse. [1]

It showed that services that combine juvenile corrections (detention, probation, community service, restitution to victims, etc.) with treatment that address dynamic risk areas have a significant impact on reducing crime. Treatment includes alcohol and other drug treatment, school support, anger management, family counseling, mental health services, etc. The treatment aspect must include skill-building, so youth and families leave the system better able to live productive lives. The intensity of treatment must be matched to the youth’s risk level.

All youth in the system should receive this mix of sanctions and treatment, but low-risk youth should receive less intensive services and high-risk youth should receive more intensive services. (Research indicates that intensive services for lower risk youth can actually increase delinquency.)

This approach can literally turn the tide on delinquency. I will focus on the high-risk offenders to illustrate this point. In Oregon, where I work, we define "chronic juvenile offenders" as youth who commit three or more new criminal offenses during a follow-up period. A 2006 Oregon study of chronic juvenile offenders found that the percent of youth who became chronic dropped from 7.2 percent in 2001 to 6.2 percent in 2006.

So What? A lot of resources go toward crime reduction. What difference does it make to reduce the chronic group by one percentage point? It makes a huge difference. If Oregon had one percent fewer chronic offenders (7.2 percent to 6.2 percent) in a single year, there would have been 2,000 fewer crimes, with over $22 million in avoided costs.

The cost avoidance study has been conducted for each county in Oregon. For example, Douglas County has strategically implemented evidence-based practices over the last several years. Out of a sample of 699 juvenile offenders with a criminal referral, 9.6 percent were chronic offenders in 2001; a rate that dropped to 5.9 percent in 2008.

What would have been the impact in 2001 if the chronic youth offender group rate in Douglas County had been the same as it experienced in 2008? There would have been 284 fewer crimes, for a cost avoidance of $3,165,427. [2]

Reducing the percentage of youth who become chronic offenders even by a small amount significantly reduces crime in local communities and yields substantial cost avoidance. This occurs because the chronic group is so criminally active that even a small reduction creates very positive outcomes.

The cost avoidance calculation is based on:

a)  an average cost to victims established by a national study;

b)  costs to the juvenile justice system including personnel, programs, utilities, training, supplies, etc.;

c)  costs to law enforcement including making arrests and processing of juvenile crimes; and

d)  prosecution, defense, and court costs.

Unlike “cost savings” -- which suggests funds sitting in a bank -- cost avoidance is related to the cost of each criminal referral and what is “avoided” by reducing delinquency.

Investing in evidence-based practices is the best way to achieve significant cuts in crime and their associated costs. All we have to do is look at the data.

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.


[1] Latessa, Edward J 2004. "From Theory to Practice: What Works in Reducing Recidivism?" State of Crime and Justice in Ohio, pp. 170-171.

[2] Wagner, Linda 2010. "The Cost Avoidance Model," Douglas County Juvenile Department 4th Annual Report Card To The Community: Fiscal Year 2009-2010, p 5.


Judge Steven Teske on the Politics of Fear: Debunking the Superpredator Myth

The Second of a Three-Part Series by the Judge on the Subject of Trying Juveniles as Adults.

I took the bench and asked if the parties were ready to proceed.

“Yes, your Honor,” they all announced in unison.

I looked up and saw a young man, 16 years old, trying hard to hold back his tears. His parents sitting to his left, his attorney to his right — his hands quivering. His name was Jay.

He was arrested the day before for criminal attempt to commit a burglary. He had never been in trouble before. He was with an 18-year-old he knew from school. His spurious friend wanted to “hit a lick”--- break into a house --- and goaded Jay to join him.

Kids like company when committing most delinquent acts. They imbue a new meaning into the phrase, “misery likes company.” Neighbors saw the two at the back door and told police that the 18-year-old kicked in the door as Jay looked on.

Unlike most courts in Georgia and around the country, we employ a detention review committee to assess each kid detained on a new offense. It is a multi-disciplinary panel composed of representatives from mental health, social services, school system, juvenile justice, victim advocate, public defender, prosecutor, and certified citizen volunteers.

This panel meets with the parents before the hearings to gather information about the child and family to assess the child’s risk to re-offend and develop alternatives to detention that minimize the risk — that is --- return the child home and at the same time protect the community.

Jay admitted to attempting to break into the home. After the plea colloquy, I listened to the report from the detention review committee. Jay is an honor roll student. He is in ROTC, plays football and has no disciplinary record at school.

His attorney asked to approach the bench and handed me a letter from his principal. Jay is an “exemplary” student. Both his parents are professionals and were dumbfounded by his actions.

Jay stood before me — tall, handsome, articulate and remorseful. And to top it off, Jay wants to be a lawyer.

I had to do it — I had to ask the obvious question of this bright young man. “What were you thinking, Jay?”

“I wasn’t thinking your Honor. I was stupid!” he said.

Jay’s upbringing, outstanding academic performance and mature disposition are antithetical to his delinquent conduct. Many outside my work would be stupefied — I understand why he did what he did. Jay’s response, “I was stupid,” is — believe it or not — a medical diagnosis for adolescent misbehavior. It doesn’t justify their conduct, but in many circumstances, it explains it.

Now envisage a kid not as fortunate as Jay — let’s call him Joe -- a kid raised in poverty, raised by a single parent working more than one job and living in an economically deprived neighborhood. Look around and see the gang graffiti on the walls of apartment buildings and fences. Kids are carrying weapons and guns, wearing colors to signify their gang affiliation and looking over their shoulder to stay alive.

Like Jay, Joe is wired to do stupid things. Notwithstanding their different circumstances, Jay and Joe are equally wired to do stupid things — by virtue of their adolescence. If Jay, with all his pro-social assets, can break into a house to steal, what is Joe going to do with all the anti-social deficits around him?

Their developmental immaturity strongly implies that youth are still in a cognitive structuring stage. Youth are under neurological construction, and should be surrounded by positive adults, peers, and institutions to enable them to become responsible adults (Giedd et al., 1999). Dr. Jay N. Giedd, a brain imaging scientist, described the importance of how adults should manage the youth stating, “You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hard-wire it for sports and playing music and doing mathematics–or for lying on the couch in front of the television?” (Weinberger, Elvevag, & Giedd, 2005).

This begs the question -- Do we want to send kids who are under neurological construction to an adult prison to be hard-wired by adult criminals? Did we really think that treating kids as adults would improve their situation, or our own?  Did we really believe that raising kids with adult criminals would reduce recidivism?

In 1995, Wisconsin lowered the age of adult criminal liability from 18 to 17. In a study several years later it was found that the recidivism rate for 17 year olds charged in adult court was 48 percent. This was three times higher than the rate for juveniles in the juvenile justice system. It was also three times higher than the rate for adults in the criminal justice system. (Boggs, et al, Treatment of Juveniles in the Wisconsin Criminal Court System: An Analysis of Potential Alternatives, 2008).

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) commissioned a study of multiple jurisdictions and found that “the bulk of empirical evidence suggests that transfer laws have little or no general deterrent effect on preventing serious juvenile crime.” (Juvenile Justice Bulletin, June 2010).

Another study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that “strengthened transfer policies are harmful for those juveniles who experience transfer [and that] [t]ransferring juveniles to the adult justice system is counterproductive as a strategy for deterring subsequent violence.” (McGowan, et al, Effects on Violence of Law and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles from the Juvenile Justice System to the Adult Justice System, 2007).

Enough said --- it’s obvious that the politically vernacular phrase of “getting tough” on juveniles is a meretricious argument in support of continuing SB 440. It has always been, and it will always be, the axiom that children and youth are impressionable and easily influenced. It was once said that, “We are only young once, after that we need some other excuse.”

So what is the excuse for policy-makers who fail to acknowledge this immutable axiom?  They are not biologically wired to do stupid things as are adolescents, yet it is arguably stupid to continue policy that is inane -- its objective is not only unsupported in evidence, but it is indisputably harmful to the youth and the community.

I have come to understand this phenomenon as the “Politics of Fear.” It’s hard for some politicians to let go of the “super-predator” myth because it displaces common sense with fear-a basic survival mechanism in response to a threatening stimulus. Thus, it becomes a politically savvy ploy that motivates the populous out of fear to act or not to act depending on the agenda.

Fear is a politically expedient tool. I learned of this adroit modus studying political science in my masters program when reading Robert Griffith’s book “The Politics of Fear”-- an analytical perspective about the rise of Senator Joseph McCarty and the “Red Scare” of the fifties.  By making claims absent sufficient evidence, Senator McCarthy accused prominent persons, and not so prominent, of being a communist, and causing loss of employment, destruction of careers and in some cases imprisonment. Many of these verdicts would be overturned, and dismissals declared illegal, and laws also declared unconstitutional. None of these remedies, however, could replace the pain and suffering caused by the actions of Senator McCarthy, and those who followed suit out of fear.

I sometimes see no distinction between the behavior of Senator McCarthy and others who feared to speak up and say “this is wrong.”  I also see no distinction between the “Red Scare” antics of the fifties and the “Super-Predator” scare of the nineties. The results are the same -- people suffered.

I guess it is easier to sympathize with the victim’s of the “Red Scare” than with youth who have injured others.  It is the kid’s crime that makes it difficult to sympathize with the child. I understand that, but it does not negate the harm produced by their treatment as adults.

Until policy-makers decide to displace their fear with reasoned intellect, there are other approaches to consider that can reduce the impact of harm on youth in adult prisons. These approaches include removing mandatory minimums for SB 440 youth and allowing SB 440 youth to be treated in a Youth Development Campus until age 21 with an opportunity for parole.

We know that youth fare much better in a juvenile facility than in adult corrections. If policymakers want to “look tough” by convicting kids as adults, then so be it for now.  However, it should not stop them from initially placing kids in a juvenile facility until age 21 for treatment.  We do that now for youth adjudicated in juvenile court on a designated felony.

By removing mandatory minimums for SB 440 youth, they would be eligible for parole. At 21, if not sooner, a youth could be evaluated for parole into the community and receive supervision until the end of his sentence. If parole is denied, the youth would transition into adult prison but continue his eligibility for parole consideration.

I know this sounds all too simple and I know it’s not. Beyond the political rhetoric arising from the “Politics of Fear” tactics, there is the money issue. Can the Department of Juvenile Justice afford the additional youth once held in adult corrections? Probably not, unless the money from adult corrections used to house these youth are transferred to DJJ. Still, that may not be enough given the expenses associated with housing juvenile offenders — expenses associated with specialized treatment and educational needs.

I do know this -- we will never figure it out until we give it serious attention — unless we keep poking and prodding.  Let’s face it -- this issue will not go away. The evidence against treating kids as adults is insurmountable and growing. It’s a matter of time before it is exposed for what it is --- a myth — and one born out of political rhetoric.

‘FAST’ Track To Juvenile Justice

Who knew that an innovative initiative that is showing dramatic success in decreasing the number of children incarcerated in Clayton County was actually sparked by a “failurein the system. So goes the story of how Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske was inspired to create the Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment (FAST) panel, a program that statistics show is having a major impact in the county. 

Teske says the case of a young man now serving a life sentence for murder actually prompted the idea for to him to start the program.

“The system had failed him on so many levels; by the time he’d gotten to the seventh grade he was reading on a first grade level and no one had ever intervened,” recalls Teske, of the teen who, after years of run-ins with the law, ultimately gunned down a security guard during a botched robbery.

Several studies have linked lack of education to criminal behavior. Teske firmly believes that if school leaders and social service agencies had intervened earlier, he would have evaded the very gang life that ended up taking away his life and that of an innocent man.

“A man would be alive today and [the boy] would not be in prison for life if something had been done,” says Teske, who has served as chairperson of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families and a member of the Federal Advisory Committee that consults the president and Congress on juvenile justice issues. He hopes the FAST Panel will help divert young offenders like that teen from a life of crime.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings the FAST panel, made up of a diverse mix of experts — including child welfare authorities, school psychologists, mental health counselors, child welfare group representatives and community volunteers — convenes to get the back story on the children who end up in front of Clayton County’s Juvenile Court Judges. Members are trained in juvenile justice and child welfare issues, undergo background checks and take an oath vowing not to violate the young offender’s privacy.

The panel interviews the child’s parent or guardian and then makes  recommendations to the judge about what should happen next. Teske says the hearings streamline court appearances and allow juvenile judges to make more informed decisions. He follows the panel’s suggestions 95 percent of the time.

The overall objective, he says, is to mobilize social service agencies to address the wide-range of underlying issues – everything from mental health to abuse – that are likely contributing to a child’s decision to act out.

“We focus on alternatives to detention,” explains panel member John Goolsbee, of Clayton County’s Department of Family and Children Services. “The idea is not to put children in jail, but to treat them so that they have the opportunity to become productive citizens.”

By all accounts the program is working well.

“We’ve reduced juvenile detention rates by 95 percent and reduced racial disparities by 70 percent,” gushes Teske, noting that prior to the effort African-Americans were disproportionately represented in Clayton’s juvenile system. The disparities have been reduced, he says, through an assessment process that assists high-risk youth in getting increased access to the services needed to return to the community sooner.

Adds Teske. “When we started in 2003, our average daily population (of Clayton County children) in the RYDC (Regional Youth Detention Center) was 100 – that means more than 40 kids were sleeping on the floor. Now the average daily population is 12.4.”

Probation officer caseloads have dipped from 150 county children per officer to 30. Supporters say Clayton County’s collaborative approach has also resulted in better communication between the agencies involved and has drastically improved services for children.

Panel volunteer CeeCee Anderson, a former special education teacher, says the initiative’s benefits are plentiful.

“We’ve gotten the parents more involved; we hold everyone accountable; the parents and the schools,” she says. “You have to take the village approach. Many of these kids are begging for love.”

During a recent meeting, panel members, seated at a long wooden table sipped coffee and listened intently as a single mother dabbed tears from her eyes while sharing her frustrations with her 14-year-old son, who she claims stole money from her purse. Administrators at his school had apparently determined that he was precocious enough to skip a grade in school, but his severe behavioral problems, she says, prevent him from advancing. The delegation unanimously recommended that he be assigned a male mentor and undergo counseling to deal with what they suspect is deep-seated anger issues related to his father’s absence in his life.

Panel volunteer Henry Walker was pleased with the hearing’s outcome.

“[The mother] had no idea that she had so much support available to her in the community and that’s why we’re here,” adds Walker, a retired Boy Scouts of America executive.  “We talk to the parents and try to provide solutions that will aid and assist them. That’s what happened here today and that’s what we will continue to do moving forward.”


Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta's Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.

DJJ Closes Griffin facility

Georgia’s budget troubles surfaced today when the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) announced the closing of one of its youth detention centers, while its top official acknowledge that another shuttering would be announced in the coming days.

The DJJ said the Griffin Regional Youth Detention Center (RYDC), a 30-bed facility south west of Atlanta, would be closed due to the department’s budget shortfall of $5.4 million.

DJJ Commissioner Amy Howell later told the JJIE another facility would also be closed, but declined to say which one.

"We will be announcing the closure of another facility in the coming days," said Howell.

The DJJ runs 22 RYDC’s in the state, including the one in Griffin.  Last year, the DJJ said up to four facilities, Griffin, Blakely, Claxton and Gwinnett, could be closed.

She also said that youth at the Griffin facility would have to be relocated, but they would be sent to facilities close by. She said keeping them close to their families will be a top consideration.

The press release quoted Howell as saying, “The current economic challenges have forced the state to incur reductions in the budget. We remain steadfast and committed to keeping our communities safe, serving DJJ youth, and preparing our youth to help build a better Georgia.”

Howell explained that the facility’s 57 staff members would not lose their jobs, but be offered positions at other DJJ facilities.

Doing More with Less: What DJJ Budget Cuts Really Mean for Children

As Georgia faces its greatest budget crisis since the Great Depression, the state Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has been forced to make drastic budget cuts.  The last three years have seen a reduction of more than 20% in state funding.  And future cuts of up to 10% for FY 2012 are possible.

Jeff Minor, long time DJJ Chief Financial Officer, explains these losses in stark terms:

  • In FY 2009, DJJ’s base budget totaled nearly $343 million.  By 2011, the budget was down to $266 million.
  • The FY 2012 budget faces further cuts, from $15.4 million in a best case scenario to $25.7 million in a worst case scenario.
  • Over a three year period, the cuts could total nearly 30%.

In addition, says Minor, the agency lost more than $80 million in one-time budget cuts, largely absorbed through staff furloughs and hiring freezes.

Minor reports that these reductions are unprecedented during his thirty years in state government.  He says, “They have touched every aspect of our business and our service delivery system.”

These cuts represent more than numbers:  They have led to a dramatic loss in services and programs.

In the last two years, DJJ reduced field and administrative staff, and cut back community residential services by eliminating or reducing contracts with non-profit community providers. DJJ also lost a significant number of beds for children in secure facilities. The length of stay in DJJ Short Term Programs (STPs) has been slashed from 90 to 30 days. The Milledgeville Youth Development Center, the state’s largest YDC, closed altogether in 2010.

These losses, particularly the elimination of 300 secure beds at Milledgeville, have had a domino effect on the system.

Teens currently sentenced to Short Term Programs are spending their time in Regional Detention Centers.  Now, virtually all youth under regular DJJ commitments, are diverted to non-secure community placements. Designated Felons (youth sentenced for up to five years in secure facilities for serious offenses) comprise nearly 100% of Georgia’s youth prison population. This means that community resources previously allotted to less serious offenders are now focused on committed youth, with increasingly less attention given to low risk offenders.

However, Minor believes the 2009 reduction in funding for Short Term Programs is having a positive impact.  “These cuts forced the state of Georgia to talk about its practices and policies around what type of youth need to be in what type of environment, and ultimately it was a good budget cut, if there is such a thing,” he says.

In short, the state was required to prioritize which kids belong behind bars.

By reducing the length of stay in STPs, Minor asserts that the agency was able to manage the required cuts with little danger to public safety.  He says, “Reducing the length of time [in STP] has not made a difference in recidivism rates for a program that has not been terribly successful.”

Many experts and advocates believe that less serious offenders should be diverted from secure institutions altogether.  Others argue that even low level offenders need to be held accountable for their actions, particularly those placed on probation.  The issue of incarcerating status offenders, misdemeanants and non-violent felons has been a source of continuing tension within Georgia’s juvenile justice system.  DJJ leadership has long sought to reduce the use of secure detention for these kids, and limit the use of STP.

It all comes down to managing resources, says Minor, particularly institutional programs that account for more than two thirds of DJJ’s annual budget. Secure facilities are now increasingly reserved for serious offenders, while at the same time overcrowding - the primary cause of DJJ’s past troubles with the U.S. Department of Justice - has been avoided.  The agency has made a conscious effort to maintain quality services and conditions in its secure facilities.  “We would rather close beds or a whole facility,” he maintains, “than jeopardize services to the youth we do have… We are still sound in our staffing patterns and procedures,” says Minor, “we are not going to warehouse kids.”

Of course, there are painful consequences.

Low level offenders no longer receive the same level of services.  The agency’s Runaway Apprehension Unit has been eliminated.  Academic class sizes have been increased in facilities, allowing for cuts in teaching staff, and the number of mental health professionals has been reduced.  More than 400 positions were eliminated with the closure of the Milledgeville YDC.  Caseloads for field staff have risen as positions were eliminated, and two years of monthly furloughs have taken their toll.  Since 2009, nearly forty administrative positions have been lost, as well as 82 probation and parole positions. Declining funding has also compelled private providers serving DJJ youth to lay off staff or close programs altogether.

More draconian cuts are on the horizon.

If DJJ’s FY 2012 budget is reduced by another 10%, the agency plans to close four RYDCs losing nearly 20% of its statewide capacity, and eliminate 128 beds at the Eastman YDC. Another 106 community treatment slots with private providers would also be lost. These moves would be far more difficult to absorb. “We have to keep reminding the public,” says Minor, “that DJJ is a child serving and a public safety agency.”   These, he believes, are critical missions for the state.  Minor is proud of the agency’s ability to adapt to ever leaner budgets, and of the sacrifices and dedication of DJJ staff. He is deeply concerned, however, that the proposed cuts for 2012 might, for the first time, prove to be “unmanageable.”

“Cuts of this level,” he argues, ”without reasonable public policy changes that people can agree on, are simply not doable.”  Yet he remains optimistic.  “Government does not innovate unless forced to with a budget crisis. There are still positive changes we can make in Georgia that will help kids, help public safety and help this budget.”  Georgia’s FY 2012 budget may well provide the opportunity to see if he is right.