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Georgia Council Calls for New System for Young Offenders

At a meeting in Forsyth, Georgia, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform hammers out the last details of its juvenile justice reform recommendations.

A blue-ribbon panel in Georgia says the state should keep most misdemeanor offenders out of juvenile hall, and provide cash incentives for communities to channel kids away from custody and into programs that will divert them from further crime.

That’s the unanimous vote of the Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, after months of study and research assistance from the Pew Center on the States.

“We have rethought what works to help that juvenile” who comes in contact with the criminal justice system, said state Court of Appeals Judge Mike Boggs, chair of the Council.

“We want to try to incentivize communities to build evidence-based options in their communities. That works better at reducing recidivism than commitment to a secure facility,” Boggs said.

The Council wants to cut the number of juveniles who go to state secure custody for misdemeanors. They are recommending that punishment be reserved for juveniles who already have four prior adjudications, including one felony.

A final version of the recommendations will be published next week, once edits made during the Dec. 13 Council meeting are added, Boggs said.

Ohio pioneered such changes in the early 1990s. There, counties take charge of less-risky youthful offenders and put send them to programs like community service, restorative justice work or mental health treatment.

Georgia has many more counties, and there’s concern that the math would not work in rural areas.

“Use judicial administrative districts,” suggested Council member and state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. “We’ve got 49 of them as opposed to 159 counties. We have a little better control that way.”

It will be up to the state Legislature and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s office to draw up such funding details. Deal himself called the Council and charged it with making recommendations to him.

“We are tirelessly working on identifying some appropriations availability and developing a program that will be a targeted, voluntary grant program,” said W. Thomas Worthy, deputy executive counsel in the governor’s office and Deal’s delegate to the Dec. 13 Council meeting.

“Details will be forthcoming from our end,” he added.

In Georgia, the governor’s office takes the lead on budgeting, publishing a first draft of every fiscal year’s spending in January.

Money will be hard to come by, even against a state budget that will likely amount to $18 to $19 billion. Deal has already asked most state agencies to cut their budgets by at least three percent in the remaining months of this fiscal year, as well as the next year, which begins in July, 2013.

In Ohio, the model has saved money so far. The state has closed several juvenile lockups in the past dozen years.

But besides the Council’s recommendations and Deal’s budget proposal, the state Legislature will also consider a separate massive reorganization of another facet of juvenile justice that also comes with a new price tag.

A juvenile justice code rewrite has been underway for several years, led by Willard, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

The last incarnation of the bill, published in Spring 2012, ran to nearly 250 pages. Among other things, it would have made numerous updates to rules on evidence, court-appointed defenders and other processes in juvenile courts. It would have also updated protections for neglected and abused children involved in the courts as victims.

It foundered on questions around where to find money for proper treatment of children.

Willard said there is some overlap between his initiative and the Council’s recommendations, and they could possibly be united in a single bill.

The state Legislative session begins in January.

Choosing to Stay and Fight For Kids in Trouble

"What happened in your life that made you a passionate advocate for kids?"

When Jane Hansen, Information Officer for the Georgia Supreme Court, asked me this question last week during an interview, I thought, "Whoa -- the question assumed something happened to me."

Now I am paranoid -- what does she know that I don't? I have known Jane going way back to my days as a parole officer when she was a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution -- she has a keen sense of things.

This "happening" resides in the recesses of my mind, something that rises to the surface from time to time when triggered by an event, song, or a question.

My Dad's work transferred us to a small town in Kansas between my third and fourth grade years. It was the first day of school -- I was nervous more than most on the first day -- I didn’t know anyone.

We started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance. I noticed a boy sitting toward the front who remained seated during the pledge. He didn’t utter a word. The teacher to my amazement didn't admonish him to stand and take part.

As it goes with kids, I had bigger worries on my first day and soon forgot about this act of defiance -- until the next day. Again the boy didn't stand. Now I was getting curiously frustrated in that 10-year-old way. Why does he get to stay seated while the rest of us have to stand? That's not fair I thought to myself. I was getting angry.

Consider what we were going through in those years of the Cold War. It was circa 1966. During school, we would sometimes be paraded out of class and into the hallways when the "attack" bell sounded. Then we would stand face forward to the wall with our hands behind our heads. All this was in hopes of surviving the impact and aftermath of the impact of a nuclear missile bearing the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.

In my world at age 10, this boy was a communist sympathizer!

It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought this.

When school let out that day, I ran into what I thought at first glance was a schoolyard fight. But no, it was three boys beating and kicking the communist sympathizing "he deserves to get his butt kicked" Pledge-of-Allegiance-refusing student.

In my state of confusion, I didn’t know whether to stand there or run away? I certainly wasn't thinking about helping a communist!

In my moment of indecision I hesitated just long enough to look down and see this boy's face, and than his eyes made contact with mine. In what seemed like minutes, he reached out his hand to me with tears flowing from his eyes and said with a screeching cry, "Help me."

I ran!

I kept running until I reached that one safe place -- my bedroom.

My Mom noticed at dinner that I was quiet and asked me if I was OK. I told her I was fine, but I couldn’t get the boy's plea for help out of my head. I finally spoke up and told her about the boy and how he refused to stand and pledge the flag. I asked her if he was a communist.

"No," she replied. "He is a Jehovah Witness."

Mom explained that the boy wasn't disrespectful, but that his Christian beliefs forbid saluting.

"Jehovah Witnesses are very respectful of government," she explained. "They pay taxes and obey the laws," but what Mom said next pierced my heart.

"In his world of thinking he is placing the flag above God. No person should be forced to suffer that trauma."

I went to bed that night mulling over my Mom's words. The more I looked at it through the boy's eyes, the more I felt guilty and ashamed. Guilty for assuming he was bad, ashamed for running.

He was beaten to a pulp because he was different and it didn't matter even if he was a commie. He didn't deserve to be beaten.

I cried that night and Mom heard it. She came in and I told her the rest of the story of my shame and guilt. She held me in her arms and said she was proud that I felt ashamed and counseled me to do something about it.

I promised myself that night -- alone and crying in the bedroom – that I would never run again. And so, I made friends with that boy.

It was difficult to re-live that moment with Jane -- my voice breaking, cracking, and my fingers pressing against my watery eyes to hold back a complete break-down. But I've always known that it defined my existence to be an advocate.

I chose my path of advocacy at age 15. I knew then I would go to law school. I have traveled a road that has taken me to a place that many think unlikely for an advocate -- the judicial bench. After all, judges wear robes and sit on a bench, hear evidence, respond to objections, decide cases, research the law, and draft orders -- what more is there to judging?

The answer, I think, depends on what that judge decides to do when he or she takes off the robe. The key question is, "What can I do off the bench to become more effective on the bench?" After all, the Judicial Canons encourage us to "engage in activities to improve the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice."

I don’t have to leave my Georgia backyard to find judicial advocates working to improve juvenile justice in their communities through collaboration and innovative programming. But only so much can be done without the resources needed to make a difference in the lives of kids with childhood trauma leading to delinquent behaviors.

Gov. Nathan Deal is cognizant of these limitations and wants change that will tear down the walls that keep us moving forward.  So, he created a reform council and gave them the tools to delve keenly into what works and what doesn't -- analysts from the Pew Trust Center and Annie E. Casey Foundation.

No matter how it turns out, I am thankful for my governor's leadership to seek reform, my colleagues on the council for their dedication, and my fellow Georgia judges for their "off the bench" advocacy.

At least I know we are not running from kids in trouble. We are staying to fight!

In Georgia: New Boss Takes over Department of Juvenile Justice

Avery Niles

The third commissioner within a little more than a year holds his first regular Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Board meeting, conducting workaday business on bonds and education, while a recruitment drive starts up.

“I thank the governor [Nathan Deal] and the DJJ Board for their confidence and I will work diligently to maintain their trust,” said Avery Niles upon his swearing-in. “We look forward to making real changes in the lives of our young offenders.” Niles, commissioner since Nov. 2, had been board chair and leaves his job as Hall County Correctional Institution warden to take over DJJ.

Audrey Armistad, associate superintendent of the DJJ school system announced that a pilot education program pushed by Deal will soon start up in south Georgia’s Eastman Regional Youth Detention Center.  That facility holds older youth on long-term sentences, some of whom have already graduated high school or gotten a GED.

“The governor has included us in an initiative he has that is going to work on soft skills and basic job readiness skills for the students that are in our facilities,” said Armistead.

Gov. Deal is a former juvenile court judge and has created a blue-ribbon commission charged with researching and recommending criminal justice reforms for adults as well as youth.

At the meeting, the DJJ board also approved the sale of a $1.6 million bond for facility improvements and renovations.

Nearly half the 15-member board joined only this year, with seven appointments and one re-appointment to five-year terms. Another appointment is due from Deal to fill the seat vacated when Niles was promoted to commissioner.

Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice headquarters

If the high turnover there is planned and regular, the turnover among detention center staff is, by contrast, a problem.

So the department is working on recruitment, as well as retention, said DJJ Director of Communications Jim Shuler.

A new website details all the work available at DJJ, and highlights a pay bonus available to veterans.  The department has also signed onto Deal’s new “Hire a Georgia Veteran” campaign launched last week.

On the retention side, the department recently graduated its first group of officers from the “Sergeant’s Academy.”

It’s a program that offers advanced training in decision-making, leadership, policy and other areas.

“It recharges their batteries,” said Shuler.

Both campaigns and others, started under the roughly year-long leadership of Gale Buckner, a former GBI officer named in response to the safety and security problems that had piled up at some facilities. She was named last year, just as the department was faced with the November beating death of an inmate in the Augusta Youth Detention Center.

Departing Georgia Juvenile Boss: Crisis Passed

After serving for nearly one year, Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Gale Buckner announces her departure, with a parting message for the agency, “the crisis stage is passed and we’re on to better opportunities.”

In November 2011, the department was beset with security and safety deficiencies, and Gov. Nathan Deal announced the appointment of Buckner, a career law enforcement officer, to the top job. The same day may have been the department’s worst: an inmate was beaten to death in Augusta’s youth detention center.

“I will be moving forward with my retirement from the state of Georgia,” she said at an Oct. 3 Board of Juvenile Justice meeting. Her departure is effective Nov. 1.

“I have been appointed by the Conasauga Judicial Circuit to take the role of chief magistrate in Murray County,” she said. Buckner had been scheduled to retire a year ago when Deal appointed her.

She came to the DJJ from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. Before that, she was executive director of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, preceded by a career at the GBI.

“I want to thank the commissioner for her work at a time when the agency was in dark days …” board Secretary Sandra Heath Taylor told the meeting.

“They have really been placing her in the hot spot to get everything running right and she has done that,” Bibb County Juvenile Court Judge Quintress Gilbert commented.

Compared to a year ago, the department is more stable, Buckner said. And staff can have more confidence in the tools and training at their disposal to do their jobs.

“For example, in our secure facilities, our folks are now in identifiable uniforms that are illustrating their authority as juvenile correctional officers,” she said.

On the training side, “we had correctional officers that didn’t know what gang signs meant … had no idea if they were gang signs, what they meant, what sort of groups that they had.”

Intelligence on gang membership was not being fed up the chain of command either. For example, if Court Services — staff working in intake, case management and other services — noted gang-affiliated tattoos on a young person, “a lot of times that information was not being forwarded when they went into our secure facilities.”

“Especially when you had competing gangs in the same facility,” that’s dangerous, Buckner said.

Contraband in secure facilities has “lessened tremendously” in the last year, Buckner noted: fewer homemade tattoo guns, cell phone charges and unauthorized food and clothes.

She said it’s because youth are now aware of the consequences of their behavior.

“Now they are told right from the start when they come in to a secure facility … that they will be held accountable both for their positive behaviors as well as for their problematic behavior.” There’s a reward system now in place, doling out privileges as simple as staying up later to watch TV or for breaking the rules, being placed in an area for a cool-down.

A program of building security upgrades is expected to be finished by the end of the year, things like more fencing, outside lighting and better doorlocks. Even the shower stalls are changing. Old-style stalls had pieces that could be chipped off and used for self-harm or as a weapon.

As for the rule book, Buckner said when she arrived there were “hundreds” of policies and procedures that were past the time they needed to be renewed or revised. A new website lists the most recent few dozen changes.

Also newly available via computer are kids’ DJJ school records. Previously, schools on the outside waited so long for paper DJJ school records that it delayed them getting into class. Now receiving schools can see what they need online.

The person who replaces Buckner is dealing with a very different population than just five or six years ago, a population under tighter supervision since her tenure began.

Both budget cuts and renovations at different facilities are contributing to a buildup of designated felons — the most violent, serious offenders — at facilities designed for short-term, less risky inmates.

Thus those less risky kids “are backing up into the community because our friends in the judicial community realize we’re at full capacity just dealing with the designated felons,” explained Buckner.

It’s up to the governor to name a permanent replacement for her.

The board unanimously elected chair Avery Niles, warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution as interim commissioner, effective from Buckner’s departure.