It’s More Than Time to Raise the Age in Michigan

In Michigan, 17-year-olds are not allowed to buy lottery tickets, get a tattoo, rent a car or hotel room or drop out of school. They can’t vote, serve on a jury or sign a legal contract either, presumably because they don’t possess the requisite maturity to make adult-level decisions. This distinction, however, is tossed out the window if a 17-year-old breaks the law. Suddenly, they are adults, facing devastating repercussions that can come with an adult conviction.

That’s because Michigan is one of only five states that automatically consider 17-year-olds adults for any offense. In the past decade, more than 20,000 youth under age 18 have been charged as adults in Michigan.  

The majority of these 17-year-olds were charged with nonviolent offenses, and most had no previous involvement in the juvenile justice system. But in Michigan, a first-time mistake can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.

Despite the inherent dangers of placing a child in prison, more than half the 17-year-olds convicted as adults were confined in adult facilities. Research shows that youth in adult jails and prisons are more likely to experience sexual victimization and physical violence, and more likely to commit suicide. Even exposure and proximity to violence can severely disrupt the course of healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development in teens.

It is not surprising, then, that youth convicted as adults have worse physical and mental health outcomes over their lifetimes than those who enter the juvenile justice system. Their problems are compounded by the fact that youth with criminal records have a harder time accessing housing, furthering their education and securing long-term employment.

Youth with adult convictions are more likely to reoffend, and reoffend more violently, than their counterparts in the juvenile justice system. If the goal of our justice system truly is public safety, then directing these young people to rehabilitative youth services is a far better choice.

So, why are 17-year-olds considered adults in the first place? Because that’s how our system was created in 1908 — the year the first Ford Model T automobile was introduced. A century later, Michigan desperately needs a new model for adjudicating youth.

Michigan’s juvenile justice system isn’t perfect but it does strive to continuously make itself better. Over the past decade, some juvenile courts have begun embracing evidence-based practices that are proven to reduce crime and improve outcomes for children and their families.

During the same time span that tens of thousands of 17-year-olds were systematically funneled into the adult criminal justice system, Michigan’s innovative juvenile justice system managed to cut detention and out-of-home placement rates by 40 percent. We have seen the emergence of high-quality diversion and community-based programs that allow kids to stay in school and receive treatment for their entire families. Unfortunately, 17-year-olds who commit crimes are prohibited from accessing these services; their options are adult probation, jail or prison.

Michigan’s juvenile system already serves 17-year-olds who entered their jurisdiction prior to their 17th birthday. In fact, the juvenile court can maintain jurisdiction until one’s 19th or 21st birthday, depending on the offense. Probation and facility staff are already trained to work with this age group and offer successful programming designed to meet their developmental and behavioral health needs.

This is important because we know that adolescence is a period of significant developmental growth, characterized by impulsivity, risk-taking and strong influence by peers. As part of normal human development, young people experience rapid physiological and psychological changes that do not fully mature until well beyond age 18.

These changes establish the architecture that will eventually allow young adults to temper risk-taking behaviors, evaluate costs and benefits and fully grasp the consequences of their actions. As such, youth are far more amenable to rehabilitative programs and behavior modification during these formative years. Conversely, harsh treatment during adolescence can further solidify a child’s trajectory down the wrong path.

Experts estimate that 90 percent of justice-involved youth have experienced at least one traumatic event. In Michigan, the vast majority of youth convicted as adults have had a friend or family member killed, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home, multiple foster home placements or parental incarceration. Rather than retraumatizing youth by sentencing them to prison, we should support them with juvenile justice services that build their coping and resilience skills and teach them accountability.

In the past 10 years, numerous other states have raised the age of jurisdiction, citing improved public safety, greater access to children’s services and better outcomes for youth and their families. The other four states that prosecute 17-year-olds as adults — Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia and Texas — are also considering legislative changes to raise the age.

The proposed legislation in Michigan would continue to allow for the “waiver” of a 17-year-old into the adult system, depending on the seriousness of the offense. Those youth would be housed in a juvenile facility until they reach the age of majority, and then sent to an adult prison.

Why hasn’t Michigan raised the age yet? The short answer: money and a lack of political will. During legislative hearings in 2016, every single stakeholder group — from prosecutors to judges to facility staff — clearly stated that raising the age was the “right thing to do.” The big question was, “How do we pay for it?”

Other states have managed to pay to raise the age and, as it turns out, at a much lower cost than initially anticipated. In Illinois, the overall cost of the system actually went down after raising the age.

It is true that Michigan’s funding system poses unique challenges. The state pays the full cost for inmates in the adult criminal justice system, while counties pay costs in the juvenile justice system with the state reimbursing half of eligible expenses. Counties rightly fear they may get saddled with massive costs if 17-year-olds automatically come into their systems, and that serving additional youth will impact the quality of their existing services.

There are data limitations as well. But none of this excuses legislators and other policymakers from finding solutions that nearly every other state has come up with — solutions that will enhance public safety, protect existing services and help more troubled youth turn their lives around. We have the brainpower to figure out the funding. Now we just need the willpower.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves one important question: Have I done everything I can today to prevent a child from being harmed? With each passing day, young people are forced into an adult justice system that does not address their needs and, in fact, exposes them to significant physical harm and psychological trauma. For their well-being, for the safety and protection of our communities, it’s time to raise the age in Michigan.

Paul Elam, Ph.D., is the president of Public Policy Associates, Inc. and has worked on national, state and local efforts to create fair and effective juvenile justice policies and practices. He is a board member of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and a consultant to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice.

Mary King is executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. She previously served as community coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, where she engaged key stakeholders in a unified effort to provide evidence-based services for returning citizens.

Social Media: The New School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Youth

The school-to-prison pipeline is gaining fuel based on inappropriate behavior on social media. The pipeline is the trend of funneling students from public schools into the criminal justice system. African-American youth have been the most impacted by the pipeline.

Even worse, the U.S. Department of Education has new research that shows the pipeline starts at preschool for black students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. It started with the zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that saw students being criminalized for minor school infractions such as improper dress, disruption of a public school, obstruction, etc.

Although zero tolerance policies have started to fade away, inappropriate conduct on social media is bringing new fuel to the pipeline. New issues such as cyberbullying have traditionally been perceived as an activity that takes place online in the comfort of the cyberbully’s home.

New research indicates that cyberbullying is now crossing over from the online world to the offline world. Guess where those incidents are taking place? At your local school system. School systems have noticed this trend and have started to put in place measures to address these issues.

More than 45 states, plus local governments, have laws and policies that protect victims from bullying and cyberbullying. Some state cyberbullying codes protect victims on the school ground and outside school grounds.

For example, Georgia laws on cyberbullying covers events within the walls of the school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus and even at designated school bus stops. Therefore, a kid who is engaged in cyberbullying at the bus stop is in violation of the law if caught and turned in to the school administration. Missouri has a new law that considers inflicting emotional distress a felony. Cyberbullying incidents fall under this new law, which requires school systems, under mandatory reporting statutes, to refer incidents to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, most of these laws do not have specific guidelines for schools to follow. Principals are handicapped in determining when to handle a cyberbullying incident at school or when to refer it out to law enforcement. One principal of a Title 1 school in Clayton County, Georgia, told me about a similar situation. He said:

“Man, I get these students that get involved in this cyberbullying beef over the weekend on Instagram. When they come to school on Monday they are ready to fight. I had two young men in my office that I literally had to stand between them to prevent a fight based upon something that happened on social media.”

No school wants to be subjected to a civil lawsuit from a family for not following the law. Thus, most schools refer out to law enforcement and allow juvenile courts to sort it out, which only cements the school-to-prison pipeline.

In most cases, this pipeline causes nonviolent offenders to be introduced and admitted into the criminal justice system. Students can spend up to 72 hours in a juvenile detention center before coming before a judge. That’s 72 hours of meeting and being introduced to antisocial peers at the detention center. That’s 72 hours of learning new criminal activities or a hustle to try when you return home.

In 2004 Clayton County decided to act on their school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile court Judge Steven Teske noticed a heavy increase in referrals to law enforcement from school officials. This trend started around the same time the Board of Education stationed school resource officers in the school system.

To decrease the number of youth coming to court for school-related nonviolent offenses such as disruption of a public school, the Clayton Juvenile Court collaborated with the juvenile justice system, the school system, social service providers and law enforcement to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to limit the number of referrals made to juvenile court.

Minor delinquent acts such as obstruction, disorderly conduct and disruption of public school have to go through a three-step process before the filing of a complaint. For the first complaint, youth receive a written warning based upon their behavior. For the second, youth are referred to school mediation to resolve the problem. A third complaint results in the filing of a complaint to be referred to juvenile court.

Director of Court Services Colin Slay told me “the MOU with the school system has eliminated the school-to-prison pipeline in Clayton County.” Students who are engaged in internet “beefs” that cross over to school are handled through normal school disciplinary procedures and the outlined MOU.

More counties should create policies that mediate social media “beefs,” conflicts, etc. before formal charges are filed and youth end up in the juvenile justice system. As we know, teenagers will be teenagers, but it is also time for adults to be adults and shut down this emerging pipeline that is impacting black youth.

Sedgrid Lewis is the state director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in evidence-based programs to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.

Life Sentences, Long Sentences Imposed on Youth Need 2nd Look

Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.

Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.

Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.

Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.

These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.

Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.

Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligible life sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.

In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.

The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.

As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.

Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.

The requirement set forth in Graham v. Florida of a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___[2017]) that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.

This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.

Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.

Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., is a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the author of numerous research reports on life sentences, most recently “Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.”

In Georgia, Sex Abuse Allegations Cloud Progress of Juvenile Justice Reform

Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, GA.
The Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Dallas, Ga.

DALLAS, Ga. — Main Street in Dallas, Ga., looks like many a former country town pulled into the orbit of Atlanta. The tidy retired courthouse now houses an arts association and is surrounded by cafes, antique shops and a pleasant plaza. A growing population pushed the law a mile away into the new Watson Government Complex five years ago. A few miles on the other side of town, the Paulding County Sports Complex offers green fields for football and baseball.

The buildings across the street have a great view of the play fields, albeit through chain link fences and razor wire. That’s where the state of Georgia put the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center, a short-term lockup which houses up to 75 boys and 25 girls from across seven northwest Georgia counties.

At the gates of the Paulding RYDC, the pleasantness of Dallas stops.  A federal study ranked it second in the nation for youth reports of sexual victimization while incarcerated.

A sister facility in rural Eastman, Ga. ranked fourth in the nation.

The federal report exposed a disconnect between what Georgia leaders said they want for juvenile justice and what was actually happening. It has also exposed a backlog of investigations of sexual abuse allegations that have resulted in top investigators being put on suspension. In addition, two agencies are being called in to help the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice figure out what is going on in their youth lockup facilities.

BJS Bombshell

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]At Paulding, about one in three of the 28 youth who completed the survey reported sexual victimization by staff, the highest rate in the country.[/module]In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Federal Department of Justice, conducted a computer-based survey in 326 juvenile detention centers across the country, asking adjudicated youth if they had experienced sexual victimization in detention.

Almost one in 10 reported victimization by either staff or other youth that occurred within the previous 12 months, according to the study which was published in June 2013. Women perpetrated most staff misconduct and most victims were males.

“Victimization” in the survey covers a spectrum of activity from being shown something sexual, without physical contact, to rape. Approximately two in three youth who reported staff misconduct said that the staff member used no force or coercion.

The federal report was shocking to some and the statistics are stark.

At Paulding, about one in three of the 28 youth who completed the survey reported sexual victimization by staff, the highest rate in the country. However, Paulding being a small facility, the sample size was not very large. In fact, Paulding is one of the smallest facilities to be ranked “high” in rates of sexual victimization in the study.

The Eastman Youth Development Campus in Dodge County, Ga., by contrast, is one of the bigger facilities ranked “high.” There, of the 116 youth who completed the survey, almost one in four reported victimization.

Earlier this year, while Georgia’s Legislature and governor crowed about a massive juvenile justice code update and overhaul they passed, dust was piling up on at least 20 youth complaints about sexual misconduct in Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities.

With regard to the backlog, “there’s no way they didn’t know what’s going on,” said Randy Rider, now an independent internal investigations consultant who previously worked at several law enforcement agencies, including 14 years at DJJ in the 1980s and 1990s. By his reading of the DJJ organizational chart, investigative unit leaders would have been informed of the sitting caseloads. “The whole department needs a rework,” said Rider. “Internal Affairs needs to have more latitude to do what they need.”

Rider is also not surprised that many of the reports involved female guards and juvenile males. “It wasn’t frequent, every day, every month. But we had a quantity of those when I was at DJJ,” Rider said. His own opinion is that female guards should not supervise males and male guards should not supervise females.

The day after BJS published its data, DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles ordered DJJ’s PREA Advisory Committee to review the report for significant data that could lead to arrests. PREA is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 federal law that commissioned a list of standards and rules to protect incarcerated people from sexual assault, and aims to help jurisdictions implement those rules. PREA applies to all juvenile detention centers.

“I think it would be premature for me to comment on whether I believe the study when the investigation is ongoing,” Niles said after a June board meeting.

Persons in Charge

Niles is relatively new to the juvenile beat. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the Warden of the Hall County Correctional Institute (for adults) to the DJJ Board in 2011, then confirmed him as the new commissioner in November 2012.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“While I was there the investigators were comprised of experienced men and women who were very dedicated to the mission of the agency and the mission of their work unit."[/module]During the federal survey period, the DJJ Commissioner was Gale Buckner, a life-long law enforcement officer, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) veteran and past chair of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. She served only one year, as she said she had planned, to mend the agency of a “crisis” of safety and security deficiencies. Buckner is now a magistrate court judge in north Georgia’s mountainous Murray County.

Her agency made a major campaign of encouraging youth, staff and other adults at facilities to alert someone if they were being harassed, said Buckner.

Part of the agency’s intake process is a video and flyer about how to report sexual abuse or harassment. Every facility has a Director’s locked box to submit reports, and posters urging youth to speak up and speak out about sexual abuse. And since March of this year, DJJ has had a PREA Coordinator.

Indeed, official written statements from DJJ since the federal report was released say Niles expected more PREA reports than the last federal survey because Georgia is building a “reporting culture” at its juvenile detention centers.

And DJJ’s work toward addressing PREA requirements is impressive, according to an independent, federally-mandated PREA review by The Moss Group, finished in April 2013. “DJJ leadership continues to fully support the Agency PREA Coordinator, sending a clear message of zero tolerance and a commitment to PREA compliance,” it reads.

But if Niles is finding or soliciting more PREA whistle-blowing, he’s also saying there’s stagnation in his investigations department. Or, as he said after the June board meeting: “I think there’s some complacency … amongst the investigators as it relates to completeness of case files.”

The 20-plus unfinished internal investigations of sex abuse allegations date from 2012, according to DJJ. Department policy allows 45 days to finish such investigations.

On June 13, Avery suspended 19 investigators and a former supervisor — that’s most of the investigative unit, according to 2011 and 2012 staffing levels reported by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

The names on the investigative team were almost completely consistent from mid-2011 through mid-2012, the last publicly-available personnel update.

Buckner described the team under her tenure, the year ending November 2012, as hardworking and serious about PREA allegations.

“While I was there the investigators were comprised of experienced men and women who were very dedicated to the mission of the agency and the mission of their work unit,” Buckner said.

But she also pointed out that DJJ has more than two dozen facilities statewide and thousands of employees. “That’s a lot of ground for 19 people,” she said.

Paulding, though a YSI facility, was held to the same standards as state-run facilities under her leadership, Buckner also said.

In the absence of his 19 investigators, Avery called in the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations to help with the backlog. Niles has also named a new Director of Investigations, Ricky Rich, a former deputy director and law enforcement coordinator at the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

The Department of Corrections confirmed that it is working on some cases at DJJ’s request, but declined to specify how many. The GBI said it is working on three DJJ investigations, two of which are of a sexual nature.

Jail Tales

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]“I was told [by people in management] the boys liked it … Nobody [in management] believed me until I got the statement from the boys.”[/module]Pamela Matthews spent an entire career as a Paulding County Public School teacher before taking a job at her community’s RYDC, where she was teaching in March 2012. She’d been knitted into the community long enough to have known some of the boys she saw at the RYDC when they were elementary school students.

“I would like it to be known how much I cared for the boys,” Matthews said.

On March 7, 2012, Matthews submitted a written statement to her superiors, saying that students in her class had discussed the sexual victimization survey. A handful of boys alleged female officers had watched boys in the shower, had allowed the boys to touch their breasts and genitals and had oral sex with the youth.

Matthews knew she was a mandatory reporter — someone obligated by law to report child abuse suspicions. But she said she ran into disbelief.

A staff member named Hayes looked into Matthews’ report. DJJ’s Special Incident Report (SIR), released to JJIE with the youths’ names redacted, contains a March 15 entry from Hayes.

Hayes reported that one of the boys said another boy was making up the story, and that the youth were “only playing” with Matthews.

“I was laughed at [by people in management],” said Matthews. “I was told [by people in management] the boys liked it … Nobody [in management] believed me until I got the statement from the boys.”

The students’ comments, written in their own hands, appear in the SIR, dated March 20:

“[The officer] let’s kids masturbate to them. She pulls chairs into the blind spots to sleep. She orders outside food at night when Administration is not here. She lets us give food for drill time. She flirts with kids, she lets kids touch her inappropiatly … (most kids won’t say nothing because they like her doing this stuff)” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t know I was just there enjoying the conversation but some of it I be seeing I just don’t say nothing because it isn’t my business and I don’t care what she do.” [sic].

Another wrote: “I don’t no what the class was talking about I was just going along with them.” [sic].

A computer-printed, unsigned, March 20 note from a staff member said one youth, being reminded his release date was days away, reiterated the first set of allegations about the officer.

Paulding RYDC sent a notice to the Department of Family and Children Services on March 23. That’s 16 days after Matthews’ original report.

It’s not clear what happened to the officer. The DJJ does not have any information on a separation date, if any, between Paulding and the officer. That’s because a private contractor runs Paulding, and DJJ does not have employment data on those staff.

Help Wanted

Working as a DJJ corrections officer can be a rough job in certain facilities. Indeed, the week before Matthews wrote her SIR, a late-night fight broke out at Paulding RYDC severe enough that jailers called 911 and the county arrested a youth.

In the polite language of The Moss Group’s report on Eastman YDC, “approximately 53 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that Eastman was a physically safe environment for staff … Nearly 75 percent of staff disagreed or strongly disagreed that youth treat staff with basic respect.”

Or, to give a concrete example, over a period of seven months in 2012 there are 66 reports originating from Paulding RYDC detailing inappropriate sexual conduct. Two involve allegations of staff-on-youth victimization.

The remaining 64 involve lewd or lascivious conduct by youth, almost always a male youth exposing himself to staff or masturbating in front of staff.

That may be one reason why a collection of reusable signs is posted outside of Paulding. They all advertise job openings.

For more of JJIE's coverage of the Ga. DJJ, read: Seven Officers at Georgia RYDC Removed after “Egregious Policy Violations”

Putting a Face on Reform

John Last 1In his 1961 farewell address President Dwight Eisenhower warned the American people of the dangers inherent in an alliance of the military, arms makers and politicians. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex” The term has since become common parlance, and his warning, while not unheeded, has done little to stop the continuing accumulation of power into a few hands.

It’s such an effective description that it has been adopted by people interested in a range of issues. We can see medical, nonprofit, educational and even wedding industrial complexes referred by those opposed to the way things are done in the respective sectors.

The comparison I am most familiar with is the prison industrial complex. It appears to have originated with Angela Davis, the well known activist and former prisoner, who in 1997 delivered a speech by the same name. A few months later, Eric Schlosser wrote about the subject in The Atlantic. Since then the phrase has become common.

It is easy to think of a complex like this as a soulless monstrosity, or overseen by shadowy forces engaged in conspiracy. In fact, there is some truth to this view. Especially in the sector of for -profit incarceration, the connection between provider corporations and the government is disturbing. There is another piece of the puzzle too though, and I came face to face with it a few weeks ago.

In the morning I met with a long-time advocate for juvenile justice reform. We live in Georgia and were excitedly discussing the upcoming bill to overhaul the juvenile justice system here. It has gained a lot of momentum and is expected to pass, getting a boost from a similar reform of the adult system last year. It would mean fewer kids would be incarcerated, while providing more treatment for for them. It also calls on having more community-based programs and would rely on evidence-based practices. It seemed that things were headed in a good direction.

The next day, I was visiting a college class near Atlanta and was asked to describe my work. I spoke about restorative justice for youth, and how my organization hoped to get a boost from the upcoming changes to the system. Afterwards, I was approached by someone who works at a youth detention facility. She was worried about the upcoming changes.

To her they seemed careless and short sighted, and she believed that the changes were based on money. If the changes happen her agency could lose a lot of bed space, and some facilities will be shut down. She predicted that dangerous kids, many with gang ties, would be unleashed on communities that are unprepared and ill equipped to deal with them.

Contrasting the two conversations reminded me that systems are made up of people. This woman and her coworkers have a view of detained youth that is informed by their experiences, a view that is different than my own. They also rely on youth detention facilities for work.

I was reminded of two things. First, if the reforms I am in favor of go through there will be young people who are released that will pose a threat to society. This will happen no matter what protocols are put in place for protection. I believe that in the larger picture this number will be smaller than the current number of young people who are made worse by being incarcerated.

Second, the reduction in incarceration will lead to job loses, most likely through closed facilities as bed space is consolidated. Real people, not a faceless prison industrial complex, will be out of work. It is no surprise that those who will be impacted by such changes, as well as their political representatives, will oppose the efforts of reformers.

I remain in favor of the legislation, but it has ceased to be an abstraction to me. Suddenly the “complex” has a face, and as much as I might resist listening, its voices need to be heard and addressed.

Georgia DJJ Audit of YDC Found Numerous Violations Months Before Detainee Escape

In October, five young detainees escaped from Georgia’s Augusta Youth Development Campus (YDC). Just a few days later, the facility’s then-Director, Ronald Brawner, resigned. An internal audit released last month by the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) indicates that the facility had numerous departmental policy violations prior to the escape, with an interview conducted earlier in the year revealing that Brawner’s staff failed to maintain proper documentation or develop an emergency plan for the YDC, according to The Augusta Chronicle.

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles stated last month that the DJJ told administrators and personnel at the YDC to improve facility safety and make departmental improvements. A late-August DJJ evaluation verified that the facility did not have cooperative agreements in place with emergency officials, such as local police.  Additionally, an auditor determined the YDC was both constructed unsafely and staffed by an “excessive” number of uncertified security personnel.

In examining grievances filed by the facility’s detainees, eight of 113 cases involved alleged incidences of bullying, harassment by staff and other young people and accusations of personnel misconduct. Auditors stated that no special incident reports were filed, so none of the grievances were ever investigated.

The auditors also said that an interview with Brawner indicated that required debriefing conversations with young people following specific incidents were either inconsistent or never conducted at all. Out of 63 detainees that requested to see a counselor, auditors found that 12 did not see one within 72 hours. Additionally, auditors said three out of four young people enrolled in required programs for sexually abusive detainees were not receiving counseling. One auditor wrote that a young detainee under suicide watch was able to “self harm with items/objects on three different occasions.”

Niles said a new director would be in place at the facility by mid-month. “Escapes and poor performance audits will not be tolerated,” he told Augusta Fox-affiliate WFXG.

File photo by Ryan Schill | JJIE

Oregon Walks to Get Teens out of Adult Court

In what organizers say is the first event of its kind in the Pacific northwest, Oregon juvenile justice advocates will hold a 5K run/walk this month to publicize a campaign to channel the state’s 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds toward juvenile court.

“In 2009, my 15-year-old was convicted as an adult,” said April Rains, a board member of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit group that aims to make Oregon’s approach to public safety more effective and just. “I knew that he needed to be held accountable for what he did,” said Rains, a one-time victim advocate. But, “what was shocking was how little support I got for my son and my family. He was a good kid, was involved with church, loved learning, loved taking care of animals. When he was charged with this crime, it was like none of that mattered.”

Her son was charged with sex abuse I and sentenced to 75 months’ incarceration, which he’s now serving. The victim of the inappropriate touching was another family member, “so I was really seeing the situation from all sides,” said Rains, “but I couldn’t get the DAs to listen to what was best for our family.”

Rains wanted her son charged as a youth, first, so he could get treatment while being held accountable. Second, she did not want to see a felony conviction follow him around the rest of his life.

Now 19, her son has completed treatment, gotten a high school diploma and welding certifications and is in his third term of college, all while serving in a juvenile facility.

But there was no way for him to go to a juvenile judge. In 1994, Oregon voters passed Measure 11, which set minimum sentences for several serious criminal charges like robbery and murder. It applies to all defendants aged 15 and older, including indictments in adult court.

A total 975 Oregonians have served or are serving time for M11 crimes committed when they were under 18, according to October, 2012 state statistics. Under certain conditions, they are allowed like Rains’ son to serve time in a youth detention center rather than adult prison.

To help bring attention to family ordeals under Measure 11, Rains is serving as parent lead on the 5K Run/Walk for Youth Justice Awareness Month on Oct. 27 in Salem. YJAM began in October, 2008 in Missouri, founded by a mother whose 16-year-old son was convicted in adult court and committed suicide rather than face 30 years in prison. Events will be held in more than half the states this October.

Every state sets its own laws on the age of criminal responsibility, and many exclude certain serious offenses from juvenile court once the defendant is above about 14 to 17 years of age.

But that automatic appearance in adult court for young offenders like Rains’ son is one of the things they will work to change during the next state legislative session, said PSJ Youth Justice Policy Associate Jose Gutierrez. First, they want that decision about youth or adult court for teens to be in a judge’s hands.

They will also lobby “to provide some second chance for youth serving mandatory sentences,” explained Gutierrez. “We should require a hearing part way through their sentences. At that hearing, a judge would determine if that youth would stay in prison or be transferred for mandatory supervision by a parole officer.”

The third goal is to remove mandatory sentences for second-degree M11 offenses and replace that with sentencing discretion for judges.

Take for example robbery II, said Shannon Wight, PSJ associate director. That’s a charge that in Oregon could result from a fight followed by one youth snatching another’s iPod, and end in a five-year mandatory sentence. “Those [charges] that are less serious, those are the ones where we need a judge involved,” said Wight, a judge that might decide the adult system is not right for every youthful defendant. “Having an adult felony conviction that says robbery II for that kind of offense is a very extreme punishment,” Wight insisted.

She’s optimistic about the prospect for change, saying “there is momentum.”

Earlier this year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recalled the Governor’s Commission on Public Safety, instructing it to continue reviewing both the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This time, the governor’s instructions read: “The Commission may recommend any structural changes, sentencing changes, or allocation of funding changes that will control corrections growth, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety …”

That’s similar to what’s happening in Georgia, right down to technical assistance from the Pew Center on the States.

The 12-member Oregon Commission will deliver a report, and perhaps draft legislation, in late fall or early winter. The Oregon State Legislature convenes in February.

Photo from the Partnership for Safety and Justice.

Abandoned Atlanta: Teens Portray the Forgotten, the Unheard of, and the Remnants of a Complicated City

The sight of decrepit, abandoned buildings can evoke many different reactions. They can inspire or disgust, educate or anger, thrill or frighten. Abandoned buildings serve as a reminder of our history---as well as our disappointments---and the art created of them can paint a vivid picture of urban decay.

Being the oddball out of capital cities, Atlanta was not built on a major body of water. Instead, it grew as a central railroad hub of ill repute.  It was a city of prostitution, gambling, and violence for a long time. This history must be remembered in order to fully understand its present.  With a foundation built around the railroad, it was only a matter of time before the technical advancements of the Industrial Revolution made that form of transportation obsolete. Since then Atlanta has recreated its status as ‘transportation hub’ through the Hartsfield International Airport (the biggest in the states). And with the airport, the city became again a center for prostitution.

The majority of Atlanta’s history is riddled with racism, capitalist incentives, and middle class individualism, all factors that led to the ‘white flight’ into the suburbs of the 60s and 70s. Large amounts of middle and upper class taxpayers left urban residences for plush, safe suburban living, taking with them millions of tax dollars which left the city of Atlanta struggling. Decades pushed forward and the suburbs of Atlanta (especially to the North of the city) flourished as the city itself fell into disrepair. Once funded schools, public works buildings, prisons, and rail yards emptied then decayed.

The city is sprinkled with these relics of a bygone era, including the main characters of the photographs from two high school photographers, Dani P. (age 14, grade 9) and Devin B. (age 17, grade 12). Through their work, Dani and Devin tell us the story of a forgotten Atlanta, an abandoned Atlanta. They use these dilapidated leftovers to explain the consequences of urban decay and shed some much needed light into the stories of the abandoned.

To view this full story, complete with artwork, visit the Abandoned Atlanta feature on JJIE's sister site Bokeh.

Georgia at Work on Juvenile Justice Reforms for Next Year

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, co-chair of a special council on criminal justice reform says of juvenile policy: “We’re not at the point of drafting anything yet. We’re still assimilating and gathering data, system driver data.” Photo courtesy of Georgia House of Representatives

With technical assistance from the Pew Center on the States, a Georgia blue ribbon panel is studying the state’s juvenile criminal justice system, charged by the governor with recommending policy changes.

“We’re not at the point of drafting anything yet. We’re still assimilating and gathering data, system driver data,” said state Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, co-chair of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

The 21-member council of mainly judges and attorneys was renewed by Governor Nathan Deal earlier this year to study and recommend policy for both the adult and juvenile justice systems.

Boggs was speaking at the end of the latest in a series of juvenile justice presentations by the Pew Center on the States, this time focusing on recidivism.

Pew says its data suggests the best programs to fight recidivism find and focus on the most at-risk kids.

“When we talk about looking at what’s going to reduce likelihood of reoffending, we want to look at the things that are targeting the higher risk offenders for correctional intervention. That really is going to maximize our impact on recidivism reduction,” said Kristy Danford, project manager at the Crime and Justice Institute, Pew’s partner in the Georgia study.

Danford compared studying recidivism risk to studying heart attack risk. Someone with high cholesterol and a fatty diet is likelier to end up in the emergency room just as a youth with dodgy friends and a prior record is more likely to end up in a courtroom.

Yet data suggest an uneven approach to keeping kids from returning to state custody across Georgia’s courts and jurisdictions.

Not all jurisdictions are trying to diagnose recidivism risk in the same ways, nor is it clear how consistently decision-makers such as judges use their discretion.

“While there may be standards in place, the extent to which they’re adhered to is not known,” said Danford. Besides that, funding varies in different jurisdictions, so the menu of services varies too.

Youth in custody do not necessarily get treatment for their specific problems, like life skills or anger management, because the state’s detention centers do not necessarily all offer every service.

And in the state’s regional youth detention centers, kids of all risk levels mix. That is, kids who are generally at low risk of reoffending might meet up with new, dodgy friends.

Pew’s Jason Newman explained that they’re not making policy recommendations, only providing technical assistance. “We’re still looking at data to find challenges and opportunities,” he said.

Smaller work groups of committee members will study pieces of data and report their findings to the full council in the coming months. A full council report is expected by the end of the year. Any or all of its recommendations could be written into bills for the 2013 Georgia legislative session.

“I expect it would legislatively be a separate piece of legislation,” Boggs said. A massive juvenile justice code rewrite that’s been in the works for several years “will continue to proceed under its ordinary course. Only to the extent that we make policy recommendations that somehow impacted that would they consider amending that bill to include it,” he explained.

Georgia has drafted legislation in that way before. In 2011, a blue ribbon panel studied, then recommended wide tax changes. Legislators picked a few recommendations that made their way into bills in 2012 and later into state law.

VIDEO: A Former Georgia State Child Advocate Explains His Work Helping Kids in Guatemala

Tom Rawlings
The Georgia Juvenile Services Association (GJSA) recently wrapped its 2012 Training Summit in Savannah, Ga., an annual chance for juvenile court workers from across the state to share knowledge, network and blow off steam away from the daily pressures and demands of their often stressful work.

GJSA members include employees at all levels of the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, juvenile courts, county departments of family and children services and other organizations dedicated to helping children.

Giving the keynote address Aug. 22 was Georgia’s former Child Advocate, Tom Rawlings, who spoke about lessons he has learned from his current job as Director of International Justice Mission’s Guatemala field office. There, Rawlings manages “a multidisciplinary team of attorneys, investigators, social works and psychiatrists which essentially acts as a combination district attorney’s office and child advocacy center,” he said. In partnership with the government, his team prosecutes child abuse cases and treats the victims.

Rawlings, who spoke no Spanish before arriving in Guatemala, found he had to adjust his tactics to fit the complicated political and social situation he would now be navigating.

Below, Rawlings briefly describes his work in Guatemala and the challenges he faced.

Tom Rawlings Interview from Ryan Schill on Vimeo.