image_pdfimage_print

Did Georgia Meet Sex Offender Registry Deadline? Thousands of Federal Dollars Could Be At Stake

It remains a mystery whether Georgia met a critical deadline this week to comply with a federal ruling known as the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.

“We can’t say for sure at this point, we have packets arriving in droves,” said United States Department of Justice (DOJ) Spokeswoman Kara McCarthy. “It may take up to three months for us to go through all of the packets we have received.”

Wednesday was the deadline for the peach state and more than 30 others to implement the federal mandate that requires states to establish a sex offender registry for adults and juveniles that connects with a national registry.

“To date, 14 states, nine tribes and one territory have substantially implemented Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) requirements,” said Linda Baldwin, Director of DOJ’s Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking (SMART) Office, which administers SORNA. “We are reviewing as quickly as possible the materials submitted.”

DOJ has confirmed that Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming have substantially implemented SORNA, along with nine native American tribes and the U.S. territory of Guam.

States, tribes and territories that did not meet DOJ’s deadline this week will be denied different amounts of government funding for the year. The Walsh Act specifies that those that failed to substantially implement SORNA by the deadline would be subject to a 10 percent reduction in the amount awarded to the jurisdiction under the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program. Jurisdictions often use these formula grants to improve state and local criminal justice programs with an emphasis on violent crime and serious offenders. The Act also permits states and territories to potentially recoup the 10 percent reduction in a future fiscal year if it is demonstrated that these funds will be used to implement SORNA programs. Sources tell JJIE.org that $750,000, or 10 percent of the estimated $7.5 million of the JAG money allotted to Georgia this fiscal year could be at stake.

Sources with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) and Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) have declined comment on the matter, with the latter deferring to a response from Gov. Nathan Deal’s office. “We’re awaiting a response from the governor’s office, DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore said. “We can’t comment until we hear back from them.”

CJCC Executive Director Barbara Lynn Howell did not immediately reply to requests for interviews, but indicated earlier this week by telephone that state officials had been assessing the cost of implementing the registry system versus the potential penalties faced for compliance failure. Sources close to JJIE.org have confirmed that the price tag for implementing the system could cost more than the revenue lost.

Georgia Council of Juvenile Court Judges (CJCJ) Staff Attorney Ann Kirkhope said in late 2007 or early 2008, shortly after the federal law was passed, a task force was assembled in Georgia to study the issue. The group, comprised of the Council, along with the GBI, Georgia Sheriff's Council and other stakeholder groups, met 10 to 15 times, she said, to discuss how the statute could be carried out in the state.

"We discussed the advantages and disadvantages to being in compliance," she said. "There was so much to consider; the infrastructure had to be in place. We knew there would be a lot of changes from what we currently do [in reference to sex offenders in Georgia]. We discussed what personnel would be needed, what technology and equipment would have to be in place to make the systems in all the different counties compatible. We knew that Byrne Grant money would be at stake but that it could cost way more to implement the SORNA requirements."

Kirkhope said the group eventually disbanded after it reached a point where the work of the task force was only viable if the "powers-that-be decided Georgia needed to be in compliance," she said. "That was not a decision that we could make. Only the governor's office can do that."

Even if Georgia chose to submit an application for compliance in time for the recent July deadline,  she said, sex offender guideline changes would have to be drafted into a bill and approved by the state legislature to become law.

"It still has to go through the legislative process," she said.

Also at issue with Walsh Act enforcement are concerns about whether juveniles should be required to be on a registry list at all. In fact, a document published as part of DOJ’s testimony in a hearing on the Walsh Act indicated that several states cited “juvenile requirements” as a barrier to complying with the Act.

SORNA sets minimum requirements for who to include on the registry and how long to include them. SORNA mandates that certain juvenile sex offenders be included, although a supplemental guideline issued by DOJ permits states to keep juvenile registrants on a non-public list.

Supporters of the sex offender registry legislation argue that non-compliance allows "dangerous" sex offenders to find the gaps and move around accordingly. Critics, however, believe that the danger in non-compliant jurisdictions is exaggerated. During an interview for an unrelated article earlier this week former DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt affirmed that he believes both sides have strong arguments.

“I’m not sure the stance that the governor and DJJ are taking on that, so I prefer not to comment on that in particular,” he said. “But, I will say with sex offenders you have got to be very careful. You don’t want to stain somebody for life, so I think it should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. However, public safety is a great issue. If it’s determined that [a juvenile be listed on a registry] is what’s best for public safety, that has to be a priority.”

Kirkhope said the juvenile issue came up during the task force meetings.

"There was plenty of discussion on that; not just in our state," she said. "When we read the comments from other states, a number of organizations and agencies were speaking out about juvenile names being on a registry. Many of the states that immediately complied with the Walsh Act already had similar systems where juveniles are listed for certain higher level offenses. Ohio is one of those states."

This July deadline was the third in the slow move toward Walsh Act compliance. All states were granted a blanket extension by Attorney General Eric Holder in July of 2009. States were allowed to ask individually for extensions in 2010, and all but the initial four compliant states received one. JJIE.org will continue to update you as our request for interviews and requests are met.

Former DJJ Commissioner Hunt Named Head of National Prison Ministry

 

 

Hunt

Former Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Garland Hunt has a new gig. Two weeks ago he was named president of Prison Fellowship, a 35-year-old Landsdowne, Virginia-based non-profit that touts itself as the largest prison ministry for adult inmates in this country. The organization has a presence in 50 states and an international arm in more than 120 countries.

Nothing much had been heard from Hunt, a lawyer, ordained minister and corrections industry veteran, since late last year when then Georgia Gov.-Elect Nathan Deal abruptly replaced him in the post after only seven months on the job. Hunt recently spoke to JJIE.org’s Chandra Thomas about his new position and his reflections on his days at the helm of the state agency charged with monitoring and caring for some 20,000 youngsters.

 

JJIE: What do you remember most about your time with DJJ?

 

Hunt: Within the short time I was there, I fell in love with the young people we were serving. I recognized that there was a great need for supervision and a great need for role models to get them back on track.  I also really miss the staff; so many of them have a heart for those children and they really want to help them. However, like any state agency the challenge was always great having to do more with less. The main concern when you are within a state agency with tight resources is wondering whether we can still perform on the level that meets the needs of the citizens of Georgia. That is always a major issue. Our job is to ensure that these young people are getting the care that they need and making sure that they are adequately  supervised. It’s an ongoing challenge I am sure, but I believe that the team that DJJ has in place is going to make the right decisions and do what they can with the resources that they have.

 

JJIE: We recently asked a diverse mix of juvenile justice experts from across the country to weigh in on one major change they’d like to see in the juvenile justice system. What one suggestion would you make?

 

HUNT: I think in every setting it’s going to be important for juvenile offenders to have proper programming available to them; particularly evidence-based programming that can help them strengthen themselves while in the system. A lot of idle time creates opportunity for mischief. That time [within the juvenile system] needs to be filled with good programming. I am very concerned about that.

 

JJIE: In the past you have been very vocal about your belief that children within the system can be rehabilitated. How did you feel about the state Legislature passing the Juvenile Good Behavior Bill in the last session?

 

HUNT: I was still there when we began the process of drafting that legislation so I was very pleased to hear that it was approved. I think DJJ did a great job of finding the right sponsor for that legislation to pass. When you get something like that passed it doesn’t just affect the child, but it also positively affects the community as a whole. I think it’s  a great piece of legislation.

 

JJIE: How do you feel about your new post?

HUNT: God has ordered my steps for this new assignment, to touch the lives of inmates nationwide with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our goal is to touch the life of the inmates in a way that it will affect recidivism. I firmly believe that if you change a man’s heart, his character and behavior will change too. We want to touch their lives in a way that when they go back into the community they will tend not to reoffend. When we reach an inmate’s heart it doesn’t just help him, it also helps society with public safety.

 

JJIE: Describe the work that Prison Fellowship does?

HUNT: We have several programs, but overall we put a lot of emphasis on encouraging churches to get involved in the lives of inmates in their area. Our goal is to court churches for our volunteer training and curriculum. We seek to mobilize churches nationwide to change the lives of the inmates in their respective communities. We have field directors nationally in certain states. We have an opening right now for a field director in Georgia. We will definitely be putting more resources in Georgia to make sure that we are covered there. We now provide online training certification for volunteers to go into prisons as a certified Prison Fellowship volunteer. The training used to be in person. We used to send a trainer out to train volunteers at the church, but now we’re doing it online to expand our reach. Anyone can go to our Website (www.PrisonFellowship.org) to sign up for the training.

 

JJIE: Does your organization do any work specifically with juveniles in the system?

 

HUNT: At this time we don’t do anything specific with the juvenile population,  but that is definitely one of the goals in our three-year plan. We want to work with young people. I must admit that I do have a real concern with making sure that young people in the system don’t graduate into the adult system. If the churches can help with that, we certainly want to facilitate that.

 

 

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.

Outgoing DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt Reflects On His Brief, But Busy Term

The man who Governor Sonny Perdue tapped seven months ago to serve as Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner is leaving his post after only seven months on the job. Garland Hunt officially departs this week following Governor-Elect Nathan Deal’s decision last month to name DJJ Deputy Commissioner Amy Howell in his place.  Hunt is a lawyer, an ordained minister and co-pastor of the Father’s House church in Norcross, and a corrections industry veteran.  He spoke to JJIE.org’s Chandra R. Thomas about his brief tenure overseeing a state agency with some 4,300 employees who are charged with monitoring and caring for some 20,000 youngsters.

Many people were surprised to see you replaced after such a short time in the position. How do you feel about the decision?

Outgoing DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt.

As I stated in the letter I sent to the staff, I certainly regret not being appointed to the position but I respect the governor-to-be’s appointment. He has a right to select the person he wants for the position. This is a post that is at the pleasure of the governor; that comes with the job. Even I was appointed at the pleasure of the governor [Perdue]. I certainly have enjoyed working with the DJJ family; it’s a great team. I really, really enjoyed getting to know the team during my seven months here. I came in with a history with the adult system so the juvenile system was a good challenge for me. A lot of things are the same and there are also a lot of differences. This was a great opportunity for me to learn about the juvenile justice system. Being new to this area allowed me to have a fresh perspective of the agency, especially with it coming out of the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement regarding United States Department of Justice monitoring of DJJ facilities). I felt that there definitely needed to be a fresh start. One of my biggest priorities was ensuring that the youth we serve received the proper rehabilitation and treatment. I wanted to make sure that when they leave us they would have received the best services.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments over your brief but busy tenure?

I developed a sincere love for the kids that we serve although many of them are considered the worse of the worse. I wanted to provide them with hope in their success. I wanted to provide them with the opportunity to receive the best treatment.  I know that we, as an agency, have done well with providing great behavioral and mental health services. We also do a really good job with education. The fact that we have been recommended for accreditation with SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and the Corrections Education Association is a testament to that fact. I was very proud to be at the helm of the organization when it was receiving that. I believe that we have excellent educators who provide very well for our kids. Many of our kids receive their diplomas, GED (General Equivalency Diploma) or Work Ready Certificates.

Are there some other specific goals or areas of interest you had hoped to explore that are now being cut short by your departure?

One area I was really interested in was providing evidenced-based programming for our kids. Evidence-based programs look at the results of what you do to determine whether it is successful or not. As opposed to just teaching something, the job is not complete until you have data on the results. Our kids have to have attention given to them outside of the classroom. When you don’t provide the best programming some things begin to unravel. I really wanted to make sure the children we serve receive the best programming.

Any other goals for which you feel especially proud to have accomplished during your term?

The first priorities were providing the best services for the children and boosting the morale of the staff. The second thing was ensuring safety and security at the facilities. Some of our facilities are very secure; the incident reports of youth on youth or youth on staff are under control, but we had some facilities that, quite frankly, I was concerned about. I paid a lot of attention to those, especially Eastman. I had some concerns so we put a lot of focus on it in an effort to move that facility forward to ensure the safety of our staff and students there.

There’s a lot of debate about how children who break the law should be treated. What do you think?

The staff has to be driven by something more than just administrative duties. There has to be a sense of purpose when you are working with troubled youth from the commissioner down to the JCOs (Juvenile Correctional Officers). You’ve got to have a love and a passion for their futures.  If you’re in this type of job just for the administrative duties and for a paycheck, you will soon burn out. You have to really care for the children.

You speak of caring for the children and providing for them, but the reality is that DJJ’s budget has been slashed by more than 20 percent over the past few years and more cuts are inevitable this year.  Are you concerned about how this will affect the agency overall and the children it serves?

It is very, very unfortunate for the agency and most importantly for our youths, especially because if often causes us not to provide all that we should provide for them. Reducing the staff more impacts our ability to provide programs and more secure beds. On the positive side it has forced us to do more collaborative work with the staff. We all have to be stakeholders to ensure that the right kids come to us; the high-risk, violent kids as opposed to filling our facilities up with low-risk kids or status offenders.

The governor-elect will soon be making the decision on what further cuts DJJ will face. Are you concerned about what the impact will be for the agency?

I have great confidence in the staff (that) we have, to do everything to ensure that the children receive the services that they need. I can’t say that will always be the case if we continue to eliminate staff and then are expected to deliver on the same level. I know that all agencies are being impacted, but because our agency is one that deals with children. I’d really regret it if there would be any loss of jobs or depreciation or loss of services. That’s why I chose to focus a lot on the staff. I believe that is so important for a state agency where workers have not received raises or cost of living increases for many years; and one where many people for the most part are underpaid. It is important for a commissioner to value them and support them. Morale is so important. That’s why I felt it was so important to engage and interact with the staff as a whole and, in some cases, individually. I tried to encourage them and get to know them and their duties.

Do any other important milestones from your tenure come to mind?

I think I began to see a lot of hope in the hearts of the kids we serve. I really encouraged respect with the staff. You have to treat [the kids] as human beings. We began to see that the more we treated them with respect the more they began to respect the staff. I also saw a lot of changes within the staff too.  I began to see them experience more excitement about the [DJJ] leadership, coming to work and their jobs in general. It’s not that they weren’t necessarily excited about the leadership before me, but my goal was to keep them excited. The SACS accreditation was a major highlight. It was two years of preparation. We were also able to make headway with some facilities where we’ve had difficulties, such as Eastman. We had a lot more challenges with that facility because it holds a lot of high-risk offenders who’ve had more incidents in the system. Some of them come from more violent backgrounds, which is probably why we've had more challenges there.

What’s your advice for incoming commissioner Howell?

Just stay the course. She is a woman of wisdom and determination. She is very strong and ambitious. I know she will do a great job.

Do you have any advice to her regarding issues that you think she should focus on in her term?

She’s been with the agency for more than five years. I’m sure she will be able to set her own priorities.

Now that this chapter is closing, what lies ahead for you?

I don’t know exactly what my next step is, but I have great belief in the Lord ordering our steps. I believe he has a bigger assignment for me and I look forward to finding out what that is. Right now I am entertaining some options, but I am not at liberty to say what those are at this time.  I believe in my scriptures, of course, to ‘trust in the Lord and he will direct your path.’ I believe that he directed me here for seven months and I trust that he feels that I faithfully served the agency, the staff and most importantly the youth in our care.

___________________________

Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.


Letter from Juvenile Justice Commissioner Garland Hunt

Commissioner Garland Hunt sent a heartfelt letter to his DJJ staff on Thursday.  The letter comes in the wake of news that he will not be reappointed to the post.  Governor-elect Nathan Deal has nominated Deputy Commissioner Amy Howell, who will be the first woman ever to run the Juvenile Justice agency.

Hunt‘s letter, addressed to the “DJJ Family”, praises their work and resonates with sadness.  Here’s how it starts:

It is with much regret that I must inform you of the Deal Administration’s decision to not reappoint me as the Commissioner. In a very short time, I developed a sincere love for all of the young people that have been entrusted in DJJ’s care. I quickly realized that we must encourage and believe in them.  Our success as an agency is determined by their success in life. I would encourage you to always keep hope in your hearts for a change in their lives.

He goes on to congratulate Howell, and urges his colleagues to “Please join me in praying for her success.”

Hunt was appointed to the post last spring by Governor Sonny Perdue. He’s an attorney and an ordained minister, serving as co-pastor of The Father’s House Church in Norcross.  His words reaffirm his faith in the future:

I believe the Lord is in control of all of our affairs in life, so I look forward with great expectation of what God has for me.

To read the full letter please click here.

Judge Warns Budget Cuts “Will Have a Crippling Effect on Juvenile Justice in Georgia.”

Many people charged with carrying out juvenile justice in Georgia are concerned about how new state budget cuts will affect children, communities, and the system overall.

“I just fear that there’s going to be less policing done on juvenile behavior,” says Early County Sheriff Jimmy Murkerson, of Governor Sonny Perdue’s recent order that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and other state agencies amend their 2011 budget proposals with plans for four, six and eight percent cuts. “The general public seems to feel that [law enforcement] should be handling every offense from sagging pants to curfew violations, but you’ve got to have the manpower to address these minor issues. With these cuts that manpower just won’t be there.”

Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Stephen Franzen echoes a similar sentiment.

“Our ability to respond to the needs of kids and the community is going to be severely damaged,” he says. “Child welfare is consistently underfunded in Georgia, but there’s no fat here. Now we’re just whittling away at the services provided to Georgia’s children. This will have a crippling affect on juvenile justice in Georgia.”

The governor says the budget cut mandates were necessary due to massive state budget shortfalls. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute at Georgia State University predicts the state budget deficit is between $413 million and $613 million. That’s on the heels of $2.5 billion in budget cuts already implemented since the 2009 fiscal year.

Governor Perdue’s Director of Communications Bert Brantley has told JJIE.org that Governor Perdue is woefully aware that the cuts will have some impact, but Perdue must also adhere to his fiscal responsibilities.

“Will this have an impact on those who receive services from these agencies,” he says. “Definitely. But we also have a balance budget requirement that we cannot avoid. We cannot spend any more than we take in.”

Public defenders, human services and juvenile justice – all agencies that provide direct services and support to young people in the state – were among the agencies that submitted proposals by Sept. 1.

The proposed worst case scenario changes include:

  • Closing four detention centers eliminating more than 250 beds
  • Eliminating 106 beds in contracted residential treatment programs
  • Terminating the contracts of four community service providers
  • Reducing community programs and services for juveniles
  • Increasing class sizes from 15 to 20 in nine Regional Detention Centers
  • Slashing staff overtime work
  • Furlough days for all DJJ staff
  • Reducing administrative positions, including some core to the agency

Murkerson and many other frontline workers say they’re especially concerned about the impact that closing Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) will have on juvenile delinquency and deprivation cases.  Although the Blakely, GA facility (now located across the street from the county jail) is not currently slated to close, Murkerson says such closures would have major repercussions in his and other rural communities.

“I’m not sure where we would end up having to take them, maybe Albany, Thomasville, Columbus,” says Murkerson of his force, made up of 25 sworn officers. “In some cases that’s two hours going and two hours coming back. That’s a total of four hours that my deputies would be gone just to get them [the juvenile] to a detention hearing. It’s going to be so labor-intensive just to get them to a facility. It’s almost not worth it for taxpayer dollars to be spent transporting juveniles for minor offenses.”

It’s an option, Murkerson says, that is not practical.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that many officers aren’t going to be as aggressive with policing juveniles unless there’s a flagrant violation of the law,” he says. “They’re going to be very reluctant to pursue juvenile offenders. Being aggressive on the street costs money. The question is: can we, in light of the economy, afford to address the issues that the general public says we should be responsible for?”

Newly appointed DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt is more optimistic. He says it will require hard work, but juvenile justice should not be undercut.

“While we certainly empathize with their challenges, we cannot expect [law enforcement officers] not to do their jobs,” says Hunt, who was appointed to the post in May. “All of them are being stretched and we are doing all that we can to make this transition as easy as possible for them.”

Franzen of Gwinnett County echoes Murkerson’s views.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster; but we’ll see what happens,” he says. “They’re proposing to close the Gwinnett facility. That’s 49 beds. It might seem like a miniscule amount when you think about the fact that we’re a county of 750,000 people in a huge metro area. It’s still some place to bring them. We may cut costs here, but it will be at the expense of public safety.”

Adds Franzen of the proposed RYDC closings:

“If they’re going to be warehoused hundreds of miles away it’s going to make a difference in our ability to administer justice.”

Critics of the budget cut mandates have also raised concerns about whether the closings could eventually cause overcrowding in RYDCs and Youth Development Centers (YDCs) – the very problems that several years ago led to the system’s monitoring by the United States Department of Justice. Hunt emphatically says “no.”

“Let’s stress that we have no intention of going back to any federal supervision again, but we will need legislative help to manage the cuts we’re facing,” he says. “We’re already beginning a dialogue with lawmakers in advance of the next legislative session.”

DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom says operating unconstitutional facilities is not an option.

“The facilities that remain will have the staff and programs needed to run Constitutional facilities,” he says. “We hope to be able to minimize and manage the number of kids who need to be in our facilities. We will also explore alternatives to detention options for low level offenders such as ankle bracelet monitoring or strict supervision.”

Although admittedly more optimistic about DJJs ability to operate effectively and justly with fewer resources, Hunt admits he’s concerned about the impact of proposed job cuts. Meantime, members of his staff, including Commissioner of Programs and Support Services Amy Howell, are already mapping out plans suggested in the budget proposals.

“We’ve been notifying teachers and letting them know about the changes (in class size) and working with them,” she says. “We’re shifting into a more hands-on approach from our teachers in the classroom, from a more self-directed approach. This will require more from our teachers, but we don’t feel it will have an impact as far as the quality of instruction.”

Hunts says operating with fewer resources will require better coordination among agencies, including exploring ways to streamline all processes, including the ways in which youth are transported to and from detention centers.

“We’ll have to change the way we do business and manage our resources even better,” says Hunt.

Murkerson adds that having more support from school systems could help to ease the burden often placed on law enforcement.

“Schools are going to have to handle more issues in-house, as opposed to putting so much into the juvenile courts,” he says. “That’s one way to address some of these problems.”

As for Hunt, he insists that a collaborative approach, like the ideas discussed last week at a juvenile justice forum hosted by the Governor's Office for Children and Families is the key to success.

“We want everyone to realize that we’re not the bad guys, we’re doing all of this because we have to,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing all we can to utilize the resources that we have. Everybody has to play a part. We need the officers, we need the judges; we need everyone to make this work.”

___________________________

Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.

Juvenile Justice Forum Encourages Agency Collaboration

It was a chance meeting, but highly impactful. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Garland Hunt struck up what he expected to be a casual conversation on an elevator Tuesday. It turns out the man alongside him worked as a prosecutor in the state and had a lot to say to the newly appointed DJJ chief.

The forum brought together juvenile judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, school representatives, public defenders, child welfare agencies and members of the DJJ staff.

“He told me that ‘I know you all want to help out the (incarcerated) kids, but I get to see the victims every day,” says Hunt, who took his post in May. “Don’t forget the victims too.’ I think it was great for me to have that conversation; to be reminded of that fact and to keep that in the forefront of my mind as I make decisions every day.”

Such dialogue – and more importantly creating an opportunity for representatives from various agencies across the state to communicate and collaborate formally and informally – was at the heart of a Juvenile Justice Forum held this week at the Lake Lanier Islands Resort in Buford. The event held September 14- 15 brought together juvenile judges, law enforcement, prosecutors, school representatives, public defenders, child welfare agencies and members of the DJJ staff. The objective was to have juvenile justice stakeholders discuss the challenges they face within the system.  More importantly though, organizers say the goal was to have attendees create action plans that can be executed in their respective communities.

“This event has brought together all the components of juvenile justice; we believe that there’s a local approach to juvenile justice that was focused on here,” says DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom. “This conference tried to bring together regional teams to decide what the priorities are and to work on preliminary plans together that will be followed up on in regional meetings.”

Joe Vignati, director of Justice Programs at the Governor's Office for Children and Families, the agency that sponsored the event, agrees that it was successful.

“I’m really excited about the work of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and DJJ, coming together and working together to spearhead a forum that is going to move us all forward,” he says “It’s  a really gratifying partnership.”

One exercise on day one of the forum entailed participants breaking off into four groups.  For example, one was comprised of prosecutors and law enforcement while another was made up of judges and public defenders. Each group was charged with answering the question “what are the major issues facing juvenile justice in Georgia over the next five years?”

"We believe that there’s a local approach to juvenile justice,” says DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom.

“It was interesting to see how the responses to the question changed based on your role in the system, says Vignati. “That’s why it’s great to have so many different perspectives together. This allows us to learn how to communicate and share information better.”

Vignati says each agency was encouraged to develop programs and initiatives that could be considered for funding from the Governor's Office for Children and Families,  an opportunity that will undoubtedly be in high demand in light of the ongoing economic recession and inevitable agency budget cuts expected in fiscal year 2011.

Attendees say a similar forum has not been held in the state since 2007.  Although that one also included an enlightening exchange of ideas, this week’s forum emphasized follow up and the development of action plans to be launched on the local level.

Luvenia Jackson, a former Clayton County School administrator, says it was her first time attending an event of this nature in the state.

“Coming from the educational side I see the need for a lot of collaboration between agencies,” says Jackson, who now works as a court liaison for schools. “This meeting has raised awareness. There are a lot of well-meaning people (in this industry), but the flow of information to the right people is not always there. This has allowed us to have a conversation with each other and realize we’re all connected and can find solutions as a unit.”

On the second day of the event, attendees heard young people share their perspectives on juvenile justice and then broke into regional groups. Group members worked to fine tune  previous suggestions and devise implementation plans for their respective communities.

The forum wrapped up in a large conference room with notes from brainstorming sessions plastered all over the walls, a visual reminder of tasks accomplished and the work ahead. Many participants said they were pleased with the overall outcome.

One exercise entailed participants breaking off into groups and answering “what are the major issues facing juvenile justice in Georgia over the next five years?”

“I really enjoyed getting a collective approach,” says Clayton County Public Defender Jerry Drayton. “There are two doors into the system -  delinquency and deprivation cases. We’ve been seeing a lot of crossover of juveniles coming in for deprivation and ending up in the area of delinquency. What’s good about the conference is that we’ve come up with a collaborative approach to dealing with both of them. We’re taking a statewide approach.”

The proposed action plans will be revised and developed at future regional meetings. Attendee Amy Shiver says she’s excited about what will come of the forum.

“This was an enjoyable and pleasurable experience that opened up our minds to come up with creative resources and networks to help the kids,” says Shiver, a staffer with DJJ in Ben Hill, Ga. “That’s why we’re here. The only way we’re going to save these children is by working together.”

___________________________

Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.

New DJJ Chief Believes in Power of Law and Prayer

By Bill Hendrick

Garland Hunt plans to rely on the Good Book as much as his law books for guidance in his goal of keeping thousands of juveniles who’ve run afoul of the law from graduating into Georgia’s criminal justice system for adults.  Instead, Hunt, the new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, is determined to see as many of them as possible graduate from the DJJ’s school system, with either high school diplomas or GED certificates.

Besides being commissioner of the department, Hunt, 51, is also a lawyer, a minister, a father and a school superintendent, because the Department of Juvenile Justice operates a huge school system of its own, complete with a school board.

And as commissioner, he’s also superintendent of schools.

And as commissioner, he’s also CEO.

It’s a daunting task.

He is responsible for overseeing a department with some 4,300 employees who are charged with keeping tabs on, straightening out and guiding upwards of 20,000 youngsters whose lives have led them down the road of crime, which for many seemed as if it was the only route open.  About 12 percent of them are incarcerated, and the rest are living under the watchful eyes and supervision of social and case workers.

Hunt, who earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Howard University in Washington, is no stranger to dealing with the underbelly or underprivileged of society, or interacting with men and women who have broken the law.  He served as a member of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles from 2004 to earlier this year, and was chairman from 2006 to 2008.  An ordained minister, who is co-pastor of the 200-member Father’s House church in Norcross, Hunt is a deeply religious man who feels he was “divinely called” both to be a lawyer and a pastor.

“I knew before law school that there was a divine call,” he said. “Law was always a part of that. I chose law because I could represent people who could not help themselves. Religion led me into law, and my beliefs lead me every day.”

Both jobs require living by rules, a moral code, and also the ability to be both coldly analytical and hotly passionate about issues confronting justice, Georgians, and especially young people, whom Hunt, the father of three, said he loves.

His own children, under the guidance of Hunt and his wife of 25 years, Eileen, have already achieved a measure of success in life. Son Garland Hunt Jr., 21, recently  graduated from the University of Southern California with joint degrees in business and cinema arts.  Daughter Christa is a freshman studying child psychology at the University of Florida. His youngest child, Jeremy, was president of the student government at Northview High School and hopes to garner an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  Though his children grew up in a home of privilege, Hunt, who lives in Alpharetta, sees no reason why the thousands of youngsters for whom he is responsible can’t become successful, too, despite the circumstances that led them into the Juvenile Justice system.

“All children need a chance, deserve a chance, and I am determined they will all have the opportunity to achieve success in life,” Hunt said. “I pray for them every day. My priorities are to equip each child with tools of success through education, effective programs and strengthening character.”

Garland Hunt has little direct experience with the juvenile justice system, but comes to the job with an impressive resume. He is a member of the Georgia Bar Association, licensed to practice law in state and federal courts. He is vice president of Wellington Boone Ministries in Atlanta, an umbrella organization for several community-based initiatives, including outreach for college and high school students and athletes.  He was president of the 2004 class of the Coverdell Leadership Institute, was appointed in 2004 as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Family Violence, and is vice president of the

Association of Paroling Authorities International.  Last year, he received the Ben Baer Award for outstanding work nationally in the field of parole.   As Chairman of the Parole Board, Hunt started a Faith Based Initiative in 2005 that recruits volunteers from the religious community to mentor prison parolees.

Hunt’s political ideology is a more complex picture.  He grew up in a liberal home, troubled by the racial struggles his parents endured.   In college, he embraced his Christian faith and started to explore new political ideals.  He believes strongly in racial reconciliation, and wrote a book called “The Mandate: A Call to Biblical Unity.” He told Christianity.com, “our nation, as a whole, must do something about this incredible racial divide that still haunts us as we go about internationally and proclaim ourselves to be a nation of peace.”

That theme was part of a brief brush with politics in 2002.  According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he ran as a Republican from North Fulton County for a state House seat.  Had he won, Hunt would have been Georgia’s first black Republican state legislator since Reconstruction.

Garland Hunt is a soft-spoken, clearly passionate and compassionate man who is determined to run a department that, in the past, has encountered problems, in an efficient way that will benefit troubled young people while at the same time keeping dangerous youth safely under control and under strict supervision to protect the citizens of the state. The economic troubles that have led to huge budget cuts have also affected the Department of Juvenile Justice, which Hunt said makes it much more difficult to help children who get in trouble, while protecting law abiding citizens at the same time.  The Department’s budget was slashed by $47 million in 2009, and Hunt said DJJ “has reduced its budget due to the economic downturn, as is the case with all agencies.”  Barring a major economic upturn, which would bolster state revenues, he said it will be tough to maintain the department’s far-flung staff and meet its obligations if more cuts are required.  “We’ve closed a couple of facilities,” he said. “In the past two years, we’ve cut 400 jobs from the department, including many upper level managers. It is very difficult to keep programs, academic excellence and secure facilities with more cuts.”   Still, as a former Parole Board member and chairman, he said he sees “the need to do everything we can to prevent the youth from graduating to the adult system.”

Hunt, who also served as a staff attorney in Richmond, Va., for the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, believes in the rule of law, and in strict adherence to the rules set down both in legal codes and in the Bible.

“In both, you are a shepherd,” Hunt said. “A pastor does the same thing as a lawyer. And I’ve always known this was the way. I made a personal commitment to Christ when I was in college. In public service, it’s not so much what you speak about, but it’s the way you see life. My faith tells me that all things are possible. As opposed to scrutinizing the kids and saying they will always be bad, always evil, you have to see them like God-graded them. No matter what a kid has done, there’s always the potential to save their lives. We need to show these kids a different way. We have to have hope that their lives can change.”   Many, if not most, of the young people involved in the DJJ, “have never completed anything in their whole lives. We are hoping to change that.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue, who appointed Hunt to head the Department of Juvenile Justice earlier this year, said he was chosen because he had a stellar career on the Board of Pardons and Paroles and is dedicated to the rule of law, but even more to helping young people who find themselves in trouble.   The commissioner’s post “is not an easy job, and leading the Department of Juvenile Justice will be a challenge as well,” Perdue said. “But I know that Garland’s love for Georgia and unwavering commitment to public safety make him the perfect person to take the reins of DJJ.”

Though it is a grim fact of life that troubled young people desperately need to be educated or trained for jobs, to prevent them from graduating into the adult criminal justice system, the task is becoming more difficult.  The DJJ, under state law, operates as a special school district, which has the same powers, privileges and authority of other districts.  The DJJ operates 28 schools, located at the 22 Regional Youth Detention Centers and six Youth Development campuses around the state. Each offender is also a student who receives 330 minutes of regular or special education instruction every day. So Hunt said he must be an adept educator, while also wearing the hats of an overseer of a huge criminal justice system, and as pastor not just of his own flock in Norcross but for all the thousands of young people in the state who need spiritual guidance.

He does not shrink from any of these responsibilities, and said he will do all in his power to make sure young offenders have a chance to earn a high school diploma, or a GED.   “It is a very daunting thing,” he said in an interview in his office in the DJJ’s headquarters, just south of Interstate 285 in a non-descript office building near Memorial Drive. “But I have very high hopes. Helping young people is consistent in my heart because I am dedicated to service. I have a strong passion for this, for helping people. This was made stronger in the six and a half years I spent on the State Board of Pardon and Paroles.”

But no one should doubt, he said, that his compassion, hopes for and empathy with troubled young people will affect his decisions, some of which, he adds, are very difficult.  This is where his training as a lawyer melds with his education as a minister of the Gospel.  “You have to make your decisions very clearly based on empirical data, based on offenses committed, and not prayer,” he said. “We have to know if they have drug addiction problems, why they committed offenses, and we take all these things into consideration to use evidence-based practices to make decisions that we think will help them.”

His understanding of people, and of lawbreakers, came not from psychology courses, but from empathy and religious training.  “You have to have wisdom from the Lord to make decisions,” he said. “Scripturally, for a king to make a decision, you have to have integrity. These things help me when I’m making decisions about the lives of young people.”

But faith alone, he stresses, will not solve problems.

Young offenders will not be forced to accept his own religious principles, which guide him but do not dictate his actions.  “I would not expect to put out a policy requiring any of these youths to go to church,” he said. “It is important for them to have an option. Faith will always be available. We certainly want faith to be involved, but all youths in the system have to have the free will to make their own decisions.”   He adds: “Personal faith is a big part of who I am. But I don’t require that of those around me. Let me make that clear. We have a number of religions in our state. I’m not going to be proselytizing.”

His new job, he said, “is very exciting.”  And it is a very big and complex one.

At DJJ facilities, young people are incarcerated for terms that depend on the offense they committed. A regular juvenile court commitment order is for two years. A designated felony carries a one to five year sentence. All young offenders must be released from DJJ custody or supervision when they turn 21. How long they are supervised depends on rules of juvenile officials. “Somebody has to have excitement about these kids,” Hunt said. “They have to have hope. Most of these kids need someone who can believe in them.”

He sees no conflict, but rather synergies, in his background in the law and as a “servant of God.”

“A minister, if you look at the word, it means servant,” Hunt said. “I am serving the public, the citizens of Georgia, as well as the young people. Being a servant runs the gamut of everything I want to do. I have a strong passion to help others,” but his religious beliefs do not call for giving offenders an easy ticket back to society.

“As I said, in most cases, decisions are made based on empirical data that we gather on every offender,” he said. “We take into consideration their backgrounds, the offense they committed, whether they have a drug problem. We use evidence-based procedures. But prayer is part of it all.”  He adds: “I’m prayerful. I pray every day. With juveniles as with adults, you have to have the wisdom of the Lord to make decisions. It helps me make decisions about young people, just as it did when I was trying to make the best decisions possible on the Parole Board.”

Most of the children in the juvenile system “who got into trouble came from troubled families, dysfunctional families, and they know they need someone who can believe in them and speak up for them.  I would strongly encourage their families not to give up on them,” he adds. “Good news stories can and do come from the testimony of kids whose lives got back on track. So it’s very important for us to follow the ones who get out of the system to see how they do.”

Some people think juvenile lawbreakers should be treated as adults are treated, but that notion is foreign to Hunt. “I think that some things a kid of 13 or 14 does is done because they are not mature enough to make decisions, they do not know that decisions they make can affect the rest of their lives,” he said. “So we may need to have different standards for a young person than you would have with an adult.”

But that does not mean Hunt is opposed to punishment when called for.  “I think punishment is necessary, but I believe rehabilitation is vital for juveniles,” Hunt said. “We must balance punitive sentence and rehabilitating results.”

Does he pray because he always has, or does he pray for guidance in the decisions he makes?

“I believe the decisions that I make are the right decisions because I am trying to make decisions that are just, that are fair,” Hunt said. “Faith provides a code, like the law. I try to be balanced. My passion comes from deep inside. It takes a balanced approach to life to do this. And that’s why I’m going to love it.”

On the DJJ’s Website, he said “the best interest of the kids” will drive all decisions he and others make. He realizes it won’t be easy.

In the 2009 fiscal year, children in DJJ secure facilities achieved a record number of high school diplomas and GED certificates.  Hunt said his goal is to do even better.  Governor Perdue, Hunt said, “told me he wanted me to walk in the wisdom of Solomon. And that is what I am dedicated to doing.”

_______________________________________________________________________

Bill Hendrick is an award winning journalist who worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 29 years.  His reporting assignments have taken him to every state and every continent except Antarctica.