Juvenile Code Overhaul in Georgia Could be Doomed Without Proper Funding

A proposed overhaul of juvenile justice laws could revolutionize the way Georgia treats abused and delinquent children, local officials told a state legislative panel Thursday. But, they cautioned, the reforms are doomed to failure without proper funding.

The state House Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously approved a 243-page rewrite of the state's juvenile code, but only after hearing dire warnings from prosecutors and a defense lawyer about the consequences of underfunding.

The bill, among many other provisions, would require that local district attorneys prosecute cases in juvenile courts. It does not state, however, who would pay the bill.

Some backers of the measure estimate it might cost up to $8.6 million, an expense that they suggested the state could share with local governments. But prosecutors said Thursday it could cost nearly $16 million to hire more than 210 new prosecutors, investigators and support staff.

Georgia pays the salaries of prosecutors in the state's 49 Superior Court circuits, with some counties chipping in more to boost salaries or pay for additional personnel, supplies or equipment. In many rural court circuits, that local supplement is already minimal.

"This bill simply would not work in my circuit," Cordele District Attorney Denise Fachini told committee members. Relying on local funding, she said, "is not workable. It's not going to happen."

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade compared the potential problems with those of the state's public defender system. The Legislature in 2005 set up a statewide funding mechanism after widespread reports of criminal defendants being sentenced to probation or prison with little or no legal assistance.

"The public defender system for many years depended on the vagaries of local funding. Ultimately," McDade said, "that system failed."

In fact, until Thursday, the House bill had exempted the state-funded public defender agency from a mandate to defend teens in juvenile court. The committee restored that requirement before passing the bill out for consideration by the full House.

That exemption, longtime DeKalb County public defender Linda Pace said, could be disastrous. She predicted that juvenile courts would wind up recruiting local attorneys with no expertise in defense work.

"A real estate attorney in Albany does not want to do juvenile defense [and] should not do juvenile defense," Pace told the committee.

A similar bill containing virtually identical language passed out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Both versions would push back the bill's effective date for a year -- to July 2013 -- to buy time to figure out how to pay for it.

Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), the bill's sponsor in the House, told witnesses Thursday they're going to have to trust legislative leaders to come up with the money. He said the legislative fiscal office would have ample time over the summer to analyze the bill and project the potential costs.

"We're going to have to get some better data," he said.

Willard said Gov. Nathan Deal's office is supportive and "will listen to reason about getting funding," but added, "I can't tell you it will be state [money]."

Judges, county government representatives and advocates all gushed over the importance of passing the juvenile code overhaul, which has been in the works for close to a decade.

"I’ve been on the bench for 23 years, and practiced for 10 years before that, and it's about time," Troup County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Key said. Committee member Andy Welch (R-McDonough) promised the years of work will not be wasted.

The committee, Welch said, will do "everything we can to make sure we have funding for this."

"Otherwise," he added, "it’s just words on paper."

Photo: Clay Duda |

A Letter to My Friends

A colleague recently called to complain about the criticism heaped on him for his efforts to bring detention reform to his community. He has been called a lot of names and doesn't know if he can continue to endure the emotional pain.

It made me think of others doing this work and the same painful darts they're enduring. So I will share with you what I shared in part with him.

By now it should be no surprise that as judges go I am left-of-center. Not that I consider myself a liberal. I grew up with traditional family values that included "spare the rod, spoil the child." Some of those spankings came by a belt on my legs and butt from my father. My Mom mostly used her hand. Today, she complains I am the one who gave her arthritis. I tell her she should have used the belt. Of course, I dared not offer that when I was a child.

I believe parents should be parents and never suffer a child's back-talk, disrespectful tone or facial expression, or temper tantrums.  My first and last temper tantrum was around age four, in a store. I was walking, with my sister and Mom. My brother was in the grocery cart and my Mom was holding the newest addition to the family, my baby sister. I saw a big red fire chief hard hat. I wanted it.

"Mommy, I want that."

"No" she said looking at the grocery list.

You would have thought she pulled out a gun and shot me. I started balling. It was embarrassing -- to my Mom that is. Me -- I didn't care -- I wanted that hat and I was going to make my Mom's life miserable until I got it.

This is where many parents stumble. They avoid the embarrassment and give in to their child.

Not my Mom. She had many sayings growing up, I call them "Mommyisms." One of them was "Steve, don't let people rent space in your head." This usually came an hour after she spanked me. She wanted me to know one simple truth -- she is the parent, I am the child, and she is in control. In other words, she rents the space in my head -- not the other way around.

With a baby in one arm and a toddler in the cart, she cornered me, leaned down, and gave me the most memorable spanking in front of God, my siblings, a cashier, and customers. My Mom was swift, precise, and painful -- though my feelings hurt more than my body. My Mom took an embarrassing situation for her -- caused by me -- and turned it on me. If she was going to go down, so was I. I learned my lesson at an early age. I never did that again.

I can give you a litany of traditional values I hold onto today that include God, country, and apple pie -- though I like the latter ala mode.

Despite my traditional values, I have been labeled a "liberal" for my decisions, comments, and practices to reduce the number of kids incarcerated. I abhor the use of detention in many circumstances, which for some that makes me "soft" on crime. The word "soft" will get you that dirty "L" word every time.

I have been blessed to have lived from coast to coast in 10 cities in between – that’s a lot of people of differing races, cultures, religions and social circumstances. After a short stint in the Navy and a college degree, I spent 10 years on the streets of Atlanta as a parole officer, later chief, and left as a deputy director. In between I got my Masters and a law degree.

It’s rather humbling to experience the streets first hand, to see poverty, drugs and crime up close. I have been shot at, thrown through a wall, experienced many foot chases and fistfights with fugitives. On occasion I have pointed a gun at someone's chest and with the help of various expletives (you have to let them know you are crazy enough to pull the trigger) they dropped to the ground. I have been to a lot of rodeos in my 52 years on this earth.

Despite my diverse background, I find it interesting how a single issue can get you labeled. Oddly enough, it's not the "L" word that bothers me. I know many with liberal political and social points of view I call my friend and enjoy their dialogue. They help me to develop an accepting attitude necessary for peaceful co-existence -- not to mention helping to balance my own points of view.

What’s interesting is that most of my so-called “L” friends were also raised with the same traditional “All-American” values -- and like me, passed them on to their children.  Nope, it’s the word "soft" that confounds me.

So I take my Mom's advice and seek refuge in what I do know, and receive the criticism for what it’s worth -- nothing. Otherwise, I let them rent space in my head.

My Mom is not a college graduate, though you wouldn't know it talking to her. She is well read and can engage a conversation with the most educated and experienced. She dedicated her life to her husband and children. She made sure my Dad excelled in his career. She made sure her four children graduated from college.

Mom once asked me, "Do you want to be a nobody?"

I replied with the obvious "no."  "Then be ready to be criticized and laughed at," she said.

Seeing a perplexed look on my face, Mom landed the verbal punch by paraphrasing Aristotle, "A nobody is one who does nothing to avoid criticism."

So here are a few things I do know and can take refuge in since implementing detention reform using the Annie E. Casey's JDAI model:

  • 65 percent decrease in average daily detention population;
  • 36 percent reduction in average length of stay;
  • 25 percent fewer commitments to state custody;
  • 1 percent re-arrest rate for those released on alternatives to detention;
  • 63 percent fewer petitions filed;
  • 57 percent reduction in the average daily detention population of youth of color;
  • 47 percent reduction in youth of color commitments.
  • 73 percent decrease in school arrests;
  • 70 percent fewer weapons on campus; and
  • 24 percent increase in graduation rates.

Detention reform may look "soft," but it’s tough on juvenile crime.

So, to my colleagues in this ever growing detention reform effort, please remember that life is unfair, verbal darts will be thrown at you, and people will try to rent space in your head.

Keep in mind that many critics are intelligent people who are ignorant. Take refuge in what you do know -- the kids you are saving from the trauma of detention. Be encouraged in the criticism thrown at you -- you become a somebody, and not a “nobody.”

And remember the words of Justice Louis Brandeis-- "All great truths begin as a blasphemy."

Bad Mentoring Overheard While Waiting for the Elevator

Working in a juvenile court in metro Atlanta, I become a fly on the wall to some interesting conversations that take place among kids while they wait for appointments.

Not long ago, while I was waiting for our reluctant elevator, I overheard a conversation that really caught my attention.

Girl No. 1:  Smiling, “Hey, you know this is my second time in court … only my first time in this court though…”

Girl No. 2:  Eyes popping open wide, obviously impressed, “Really, aren’t you afraid you will have to go to the RYDC?” (Regional Youth Detention Center)

Girl No. 1:  Flashing tough girl smile, “For real girl, I have already been there.  Met some cool girls too… hoping to hang with them all soon.”

At this point I looked at both of the girls’ mothers, shocked that neither had intervened in the conversation taking place. They sat staring straight ahead, not appearing to hear or be paying attention to them in the least.

Girl #2:  Leaning into Girl #1, “Wow, for real?  I have never been to RYDC.  I have heard of some girls who have.  Maybe I’ll end up there too, after all, it’s gotta be less boring than school.”

Girl #1:  “Oh, it’s really boring too, but easy. I am not scared of any of it. It’s just time.”

Both girls went on to explain the nature of the acts that landed them in court that day.  By the time my elevator arrived, one might never have known they had just met.

The two girls were awaiting a program at our court called the Quad C-ST. It is a single point of entry to local services and consists of a panel of experts that meet with the parents of youth who have been referred by an individual or agency in the community.

The panel gathers important information about school, home and community history of the youth.  This information is then used to develop an appropriate plan of treatment/intervention for each at-risk youth. Recommendations are based on each youth’s needs and the resources which are available in the community.

Instead of filing truancy and unruly petitions, the child and family are referred to the Quad C-ST for assessment. The same is true with low-level school offenses, which are mostly unruly students but masked with a delinquent act, disrupting public school and disorderly conduct. This has reduced school related petitions by 73 percent. All of this began when we joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative network and equipped ourselves with the knowledge of detention ineffectiveness and with tools to serve kids better.

We have come a long way from past years.  Now, with these new tools and collaborative systems, we are better able to keep low-risk offenders away from high-risk offenders and out of detention centers and instead serving them in the community. However, we still have a system that does not consider that these positive changes might require a shift in the way we fund the system.

Statistics show that of all status runaways, four out of five are girls, increasing the odds that girls will be detained for a status offense if there are no services available to keep them safe.  Let’s face it; most girls are not high risk, but high needs.  Unfortunately, most communities do not have the resources for appropriate services for girls with high needs.

One program that the evidence shows works with youth, especially girls, is mentoring.

After my wait at the elevator, I couldn’t help but think I had just spent five minutes witnessing some serious mentoring.  Unfortunately, it was negative mentoring. Positive mentoring programs for at-risk girls are few and far between, as they are difficult to fund.

Girls like the ones I saw, often end up receiving safe keeping and services in an RYDC setting, but could have best been served in their communities, if only resources were available.  It is not enough to assess the needs of youth.

We must question why low- risk, high- need youth  too often only find needed services in an RYDC environment.

Cuts to Juvenile Justice System in Georgia Won’t Compromise Safety, Says Commissioner

Georgia's juvenile justice system is eliminating jobs just as many other state agencies are, but Commissioner Gale Buckner of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) promised Wednesday that none of the cuts will compromise the safety of youthful offenders.

Directed by Gov. Nathan Deal to cut spending on current programs by 2 percent, the DJJ submitted a proposed 2013 budget that trims clerical and administrative positions, four teachers and two dozen staffers in a program offering intensive community-based programs supervision.

But, Buckner told state House and Senate budgetwriters Wednesday, "no position that is safety- or security-related will be cut." Buckner was responding to the concerns of state Rep. Quincy Murphy of Augusta, where a 19-year-old was fatally beaten two months ago in his cell at a youth development campus. A 17-year-old resident of the facility was charged with murder in the incident.

Buckner cautioned, however, that low pay and other factors contribute to a continuing struggle to keep enough juvenile correctional officers on the job. Their entry salary is $24,000 a year, she noted, "so we have problems filling those positions but also keeping those positions [filled]."

DJJ had a 54 percent turnover among correctional officers last year, compared to 41 percent the previous year, officials say.

Overall, Deal is proposing a 5 percent hike in DJJ's funding for 2013, including $1 million to organize two SWAT teams and nearly $8 million to open an 80-bed youth prison in south Fulton County.

A Season to Imagine a Better World

Let’s face it — the practice of juvenile justice does not work for the most part. I applaud the efforts of those pushing our juvenile code rewrite here in Georgia, but will the changes produce drastic outcomes for delinquent youth?  Drastic outcomes require drastic changes — I mean controversial and blasphemous changes!

To achieve drastic outcomes, we have to change the starting place. We already know — or should know — what to do with delinquent youth. The question is where do we do what with them?  Despite the significant progress to develop effective community-based programs such as cognitive behavioral training, Multi-Systemic Therapy (MST), and Functional Family Therapy (FFT), they become insignificant if the costs to support them are dedicated to the brick and mortar to house youth.

This is exacerbated knowing that secure facilities have the worse recidivist rates and house mostly non-violent youth. For example, in 2007 only 12 percent of all committed youth in the United States were convicted of a violent index offense and only 10.9 percent represent assault related offenses.How do we get to a point where we incarcerate so many non-violent youth -- an overwhelming 77.1percent?

The recent Annie E. Casey publication titled "No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration"  suggests--with evidentiary support -- that we incarcerate non-violent youth for one or more reasons. First, judges complain of a lack of services. When a judge knows what a kid needs and the services are not available, a judge is going to err on the side of caution -- community safety -- and commit. As former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman once observed,  when judges are not afforded many options between probation and incarceration, "That's like choosing between aspirin or a lobotomy for a migraine."  Our juvenile justice system is in peril because it paralyzes our youth -- we are lobotomizing them because we don't have enough aspirin.

Second, judges and probation officers are incentivized to over-commit. In most states, local courts are required to fund probation and treatment programs with no financial supplement from the state. Although community programs are cost effective, they still cost. The choice to commit becomes inviting when it does not cost the local government. For the probation officer, the incentive to commit is a smaller caseload -- "that's one less on my caseload!"

Third, with the deterioration of mental health services for youth across this country, judges have been placed in the awkward position to dump youth with mental health disorders in the juvenile justice system. This "dumping ground" effect increases in size as we widen the net.

For example, school systems and child welfare agencies have looked to the courts to address their perceived problems. We know that abused and neglected kids in foster care are more likely to be arrested as juveniles. It becomes easier for many child welfare case managers to abandon their kid to the juvenile justice system when they act out.

Zero tolerance policies in schools have led to dumping minor school related offenses in court. As the net widens, more kids are on the radar for commitment consideration.  Many of the kids referred to juvenile court have emotional behavioral disorders and learning disabilities -- a difficult population that increases the risk for commitment.

Finally, there are those kids who are committed to a secure facility because they made the probation officer or judge mad. Approximately 12 percent of incarcerated kids are technical violators and status offenders and the underlying offenses for most of these kids are non-violent.

They are the P.O.A. kids -- the "Piss Off Adult" kids. They defy the technical rules of probation and it frustrates the probation officer and judge. They are committed believing their defiance is an indicator of re-offending when research shows that "institutional non-compliance is not very predictive of the risk of recidivism."

It shouldn't be a surprise to the grownups that these kids have issues underlying their defiant personalities -- drugs, neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, learning disabilities, and other trauma -- and in their neurologically-limited capacity to cope, they cry out for help using a language of anger and we respond in kind.

There are better responses to a kid’s anger that is grounded in a simple technique -- listening. Over 12 years on the bench I have heard many kids spew awful and vulgar words as the deputy stands guard with eyebrows raised waiting in anticipation for those words from my mouth -- "lock him up!" -- that never came out.

Our contempt laws oblige us to give a warning -- a second chance -- to violators before we find them in direct contempt. It’s an opportunity to listen, explain, and diffuse the emotions. It’s an opportunity for the system to act big, to provide a teaching moment.

Otherwise, what do kids learn when we respond with handcuffs? Don't be fooled -- they win. They wanted to make me mad — push my buttons, rent space in my head -- and they succeeded.  Whose fault is that?

Many of these kids would do better off in the community with intensive services to equip him and the parents with the skills to overcome the underlying causes that manifests into delinquent conduct. A former warden of a youth correctional facility in Texas said, "What will make a difference for a kid is what he does in the community with the appropriate resources made available to him -- not in prison." We can’t do MST, FFT, and other much needed family based training in a prison!

Most judges I know want these tools. They cry for help but are given very few choices that include commitment. How do we get more services as an alternative to commitment if the monies to support these services are spent housing kids? I think the answer is in the question -- and it is controversial --depopulate most of the secure facilities and reinvest the monies in the community.

It comes down to math. It cost about $88,000 to house a kid for 12 months. In contrast, it cost approximately $8,539 to treat a child effectively in the community. Imagine the intensive services that could be afforded if each court had available up to $88,000 for each kid -- and that amount is overkill!

Imagine a system that can take care of its mentally ill children. No more dumping in a delinquent system.

A great juvenile justice reformer, Jerome Miller, dismantled the facilities when he was the commissioner of Massachusetts DYS. He replaced them with community based interventions — that was 1969. It was controversial.

He was not well liked—but recidivism declined. Imagine that.