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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.

Juvenile “Good Behavior bill” Advances Through Senate Committee

House Bill 373, also known as the “Good Behavior bill,” which pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC).

The measure seems to have a track record of advancing just in the nick of time. Last Monday – just two days before the critical Crossover Day deadline – it got pushed through to the Senate. Yesterday Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell had about 20 minutes to drive to the State Capitol to testify on it after it was unexpectedly added to the SJC agenda.

“I don’t know what happened I had just left the capitol; I was told that it wasn’t on the schedule and then all of a sudden I get this call from [committee chairman Bill] Hamrick’s legal assistant that I needed to turn around and come back,” says DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “All I could do was call the commissioner and tell her ‘you’ve got 20 minutes to make it.’”

Howell

Howell managed to arrive in time to present on the measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges. Sponsor Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn) also addressed the SJC, before members approved it with no amendments. If passed into law, HB 373 would allow judges to review the sentences of felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. Behavior and academic achievement would weigh heavily in the child’s favor. A motion could only be filed after he or she had served a year in custody and could not be re-filed more than once a year.

“It originally indicated that we would have to notify the victim within 10 days,” Moore said. “They only asked that we change that to 14 days.”

Rep. Pak

DJJ brass has praised the measure as a means of promoting “long-term public safety” and providing an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community. The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee. Once passed through, it will head to the Senate floor for a vote. “We’re really excited that it’s advancing so quickly; it’s a good bill,” gushed Moore. “It gives the kids an incentive to do what they need to do.”

Juvenile ‘Good Behavior’ Bill Clears Ga. House, Heads To Senate

The Georgia House of Representatives has approved a measure dubbed the “good behavior bill,” that pushes for more discretion among juvenile court judges. The 169 to 1 vote came just in time to meet this week’s critical legislative “crossover day” deadline.

"I am so pleased with the passage of House Bill 373 and grateful to B.J. Pak, Jay Neal, Wendell Willard, Stacey Abrams, Yasmin Neal and all of the representatives who voted in support of the bill,” said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) Commissioner Amy Howell. “It is great that our leadership understood the opportunity this bill presents for DJJ, our youth and Georgia. I am looking forward to working with the Senate."

The measure, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of felons who have served part of their terms for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J. Pak (R-Lilburn), cleared the House Rules Committee on Friday and was heard on the House floor Monday.

Rep. Pak

“I think it’s good; obviously it’s something that has been worked on for several years,” Rep. Pak said, shortly after the vote. “This provides an incentive for juveniles in detention centers to behave. It allows them to petition the court for a modified sentence if he or she completes the terms of their sentence and demonstrates that they are rehabilitated. As the law stands now, they can’t even be considered for early release even if they have met all expectations.”

Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center Director Kirsten Widner said she was pleased with the House vote.

“I think it’s great that they recognize that they had a great bill in front of them,” she said.

The measure is now headed to the Senate where it will likely be heard by the Judiciary Committee headed by Sen. Bill Hamrick (R- Carrollton), Rep. Pak said.

“This provides these juveniles with more of a chance to get another shot,” he added. “It’s about time we do this.”

Howell has described the legislation as  “good” for Georgia and DJJ. “It provides an incentive for youth to behave appropriately and focus on their education and rehabilitation from the moment they enter the system rather than waiting until the end of their commitment,” she said.

Crossover day — the critical mid-point in the legislative session, when Senate bills move over to the House and House bills transition to the Senate — is Wednesday. Any bills that have not passed a committee hearing by then will have to be considered later in the two-year legislative cycle.

Howell has said the measure “promotes long-term public safety” and provides an incentive for young people in detention centers to better themselves in preparation for life back in the community.

“I spoke with a young lady at Macon YDC who is a designated felon,” she said. “She has attained her diploma, completed technical trade training and is a behavioral model at the facility. She has another year of her five-year sentence to serve. She is worried about what she will do as a 21 year old and mother when she gets out. This bill gives the courts an opportunity to weigh whether there is a greater risk to long-term public safety if we leave a young lady like this locked up.”

Although it would likely be touted as a victory for child advocates in the state, final passage of HB 373 could also signal the end for Senate Bill 105 which proposes to establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within DJJ. One key difference between the measures is that one gives more discretion to juvenile court judges while the other leaves the child’s fate in the hands of parole board members appointed by the DJJ commissioner.

“My bill does not modify the sentence,” noted SB 105 sponsor Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur). “Under my bill, the child would have to spend time in a detention center and one third of his or her remaining time on supervised release.”

Sen. Jones had recently told JJIE.org that if his bill was not heard he would “attach it” to the massive Juvenile Code rewrite. Sources affiliated with Senate Bill 127, also known as the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, have hinted that some exciting updates are expected soon on the status of the code rewrite but they won’t elaborate at this time. So far it has not made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC). Failure to do so this session would be a major blow to supporters who have been involved in the rewriting process since 2004.

Sen. Jones now tells JJIE.org that he will support HB 373. “The key is getting something out there that works,” he said. “If HB 373 gets passed, let’s go with it. I wholeheartedly support it.”

He said he also backs the idea that Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske proposed to JJIE.org last month; pass HB 373, assess the data collected on it for a predetermined time and then only revisit the parole board model if data reveals problems with the execution of the good behavior bill.

“The ultimate goal is not to have good kids trapped in a bad system,” Sen. Jones said. “Anything that addresses that; I’m all for it.”

JJIE.org will be monitoring closely these final days in the session before crossover day. Keep checking here for updates.

Uphill Battle Likely For Juvenile Parole Board Legislation Sponsor

Now that a bill allowing for more discretion among juvenile court judges has been filed with the Georgia House of Representatives, it may be an uphill battle for the sponsor of another bill pushing for the creation of a juvenile parole board.

Nearly two weeks ago Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), a Georgia Legislative Black Caucus member, introduced Senate Bill 105, which would establish a three-person juvenile parole panel within the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

“With limited financial resources and the severe overcrowding in our jails, we must begin looking at alternatives to incarceration,” said Sen. Jones of the measure, now awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee. “This bill is aimed at juvenile offenders who have committed only designated felonies.”

The main challenge ahead for Sen. Jones may be the fact that another measure dubbed the “good behavior bill" pushing for more discretion among juvenile court judges was also filed late last week. House Bill 373, which has been formally endorsed by DJJ and the Council of Juvenile Court Judges, would allow judges to review the sentences of designated felons who have accomplished the terms of his or her sentence for consideration for early release. The measure, sponsored by Rep. B.J Pak (R-Lilburn), has been endorsed by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb)

Both bills were introduced on the heels of Governor Nathan Deal’s recent announcement of plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by next January. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of adults in the nation, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.

Judge Teske

Tom Williams, an assistant district attorney in the Flint Judicial Circuit, has issue with the fact that as drafted, the parole board bill only requires victims and prosecutors to be notified of the child’s parole status 72 within hours of it being granted.

“That’s a significant issue for a district attorney,” Williams said. “I don’t think that’s the way to go about it.  It’s not that we are opposed to a deserving child having a mechanism for early release – we know children change a lot – but the vehicle in which that child gets to request early release should be created in collaboration with the different entities involved. That’s what makes SB 127 (the Juvenile Code rewrite bill) so great, because everyone was at the discussion table.”

Williams added that there is “no one opinion shared among prosecutors in Georgia’s 159 counties and 49 judicial circuits,” but his organization welcomes the opportunity to be a part of shaping any legislation that would assist in the early release of rehabilitated juveniles.

DJJ representatives are being tight-lipped about their support of Sen. Jones’s measure.

“We support any legislation that the governor has said he will go ahead with,” DJJ Spokeswoman Scheree Moore said last week, noting that the agency “supports the legislative process” and will support. Sen. Jones’s legislation “if he gets it passed.”

A representative from the juvenile judges council has confirmed that the organization has not formally reviewed the parole board legislation. Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said he understands why the council has endorsed HB 373.

“It gives the judges more discretion, whereas the parole board measure actually takes away some discretion,” said Judge Teske, a former president of the organization. “It puts the decision of what kid get released into the hands of the executive branch.”

“Both sides agree that kids who have been incarcerated and have accomplished their goals and are rehabilitated should not remain incarcerated,” Judge Teske said.

“At that point we would be causing harm and warehousing rehabilitated kids,” he said. “The question is how do we accomplish that? I think we should go forward with [HB 373], test it out and see how it works and collect data on it. It can achieve the same results as the parole board; the consistent, fair release of children.”

Data collection is required, he said, if the good behavior measure does not work, the parole board idea could be revisited.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-30) has not yet called a hearing for the parole board measure, but it is receiving some bi-partisan support. Senator John B. Crosby (R-Tifton), a co-signer of the parole board bill, said he supports the measure and its “new approach” to juvenile justice in Georgia.

“If kids are going to change or desire to get rehabilitated they’re probably going to make that decision soon after incarceration,” said Sen. Crosby, a former juvenile and superior court judge. “This bill creates that opportunity…. It gives those who work in the juvenile justice arena some flexibility to work with.”

Governor Deal has received a copy of the bill and “has not come out in opposition to it,” Sen. Jones said. He echoed, Sen. Crosby’s sentiments. “A rehabilitation-focused approach to juvenile justice will help improve our public safety while also saving taxpayer dollars,” he said. “We need to break the cycle and intervene when young people break the law.”

Sen. Crosby emphasized that he does not support early release for violent offenders, but he sees the parole board as a great way to encourage rehabilitation.

“When you have mandatory sentencing and a child must stay the entire length of time, it doesn’t give much hope,” he said. “If he knew his behavior would help him get out that would be great motivation and also makes for safer detention centers. I’m not in support of mandatory minimums. We need to leave that discretion up to the judges elected by the people.”

Sen. Jones, who passed another bill last year that curbs the abuse of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools, said that the overall purpose of the legislation is to help children become productive members of society.

“Young people can turn their lives around for the better and this bill provides a mechanism for them to do that and move forward with their lives,” he said.

Here’s what we know about SB 105:

·      Panel members would be appointed by the DJJ commissioner and would decide which designated felons are eligible for parole.

·      If granted parole, juveniles would remain under the supervision of the DJJ until their maximum sentence expires.

·      Only those who have demonstrated good conduct and completed the educational and program requirements will be considered.

·      The panel would also be responsible for any parole violations; aiding parolees in finding employment and determining which designated felons are fit for relief from the panel.

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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.

Joint Appropriations Committee Hears From New DJJ Commissioner

The harsh realities of the new year’s budget woes continue to sink in for Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) brass. Newly appointed Commissioner Amy Howell has formally presented her concerns and suggestions about the agency’s inevitable revenue slashes to members of the House and Senate appropriations committee.

In a 20-minute budget hearings presentation Wednesday Howell, a former DJJ deputy commissioner, outlined the agency’s structure, highlighted challenges that further budgets cuts could impose and emphasized the critical role that legislative support would play in helping the agency continue to fulfill its mission. In his first state-of the-state address last week, new Governor Nathan Deal proposed cutting all agency budgets by four percent on average during the rest of the fiscal year ending in June and another seven percent during fiscal 2012.

“We’re very cognizant of the incredible difficult economic times that the state is facing and we know that these difficulties are across the board for all agencies,” says DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “But we also want to make sure that we are serving the youth in our care. We are a public safety agency, but we are also an agency that is charged with serving youth. We’re going to have to get some legislative support to allow us to do what we need to do.”

Howell emphasized in her report that the steadily shrinking supply of detention beds should be reserved mostly for high-risk offenders and urged for more sentencing flexibility that would allow more low-risk youths to be monitored closely from home.

Among the strategies Howell proposed in her presentation include:

  • Approve legislation that would allow juvenile court judges to modify the mandatory minimum sentences for designated felons who have demonstrated that he or she has been rehabilitated and who has successfully completed all educational and program requirements. “The minimum is 12 months now and this would allow that to be changed to six to 60 months,” says Moore. “This would allow the judges greater discretion with each individual case. This would be considered in the case of a kid who has done everything he was supposed to do; he’s gotten his GED or vocational training or certificate. He has done all he needed to do. This would give the judges discretion to allow that child to leave earlier. A judge, for example, might put him on probation.”
  • Close two 30-bed Regional Youth Development Centers (RYDCs). “We’re not sure which ones right now,” adds Moore. “We initially had some on the list but those are currently being evaluated. We are analyzing population data and the utilization rates; how often is that facility used by that particular county. These short term strategies will allow us to better manage population.”
  • Legislate the use of a Detention Assessment Instrument (DAI), an assessment tool that provides judges with objective information about a youth to determine whether he or she should or should not be detained. “It’s not required now, but we are proposing that it should be,” says Moore. “It’s an assessment tool for judges.”

  • Maintain a hiring freeze that would leave the current 49 vacancies unfilled.

  • Eliminate paid overtime for employees.

  • Eliminate 11 administrative positions.
  • Eliminate 11 education positions. “This means class sizes would change in the RYDCs,” notes Moore.

The proposed cuts come on the heels of an especially daunting few years for DJJ. Last year alone, the state agency of some 4,300 employees who oversee about 20,000 youngsters, lost 344 detention center beds. “Macon YDC [Youth Detention Centers] decreased its number of beds by 44,” she says. “We lost 300 more beds at Bill Ireland [YDC] last year after we closed it.”

Since fiscal year 2009, according to Moore, DJJ has:

  • Slashed $76.5 million from its coffers, roughly 23.5 percent of its budget. “Eighty-eight percent of those cuts came from personal services and service benefits to children,” she says.
  • Cut its workforce by 623 employees.

Legislators will get to vote on the proposed budget, before it goes back to Governor Deal.

“We don’t want to sound like we’re complaining; we know that all agencies are experiencing this, but as an agency that serves children we have some major concerns,” Moore says. “We have to come up with strategies that will allow us to meet our goals. We don’t want to get caught up with another MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] from the Justice Department. We need to make sure that we are making policy decisions that are real and don’t impact the services we provide.”

Adds Moore: “Any further reduction of beds may create overcrowding [in detention centers]. It could threaten our compliance with the MOA and our ability to deliver on our Constitutional requirements.”

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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.

New DJJ Policy Lowers Costs, Raises Concerns

Thanks to a new Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) policy overcrowding is no longer an option in Georgia’s Regional Youth Development Centers (RYDCs). There are concerns, however, that the mandate to maintain a smaller number of kids in facilities could potentially become an expensive logistical nightmare for law enforcement.

Now when RYDCs reach the new lowered population levels, law enforcement officers are required to drive the juveniles to the nearest available facility – whether it’s 10 or 100 miles away.

“Concerns have been raised that there are going to be longer trips and it’s going to cost more to move kids from one center to the other and to transport them to court, “ said Rob Rosenbloom, DJJ Deputy Commissioner. “It’s a legitimate concern, but our hands are tied due to budget constraints. Our priority is to try to balance it out so that no facility is ever overcrowded.”

For about a month, RYDC managers and law enforcement officers have been under DJJ orders to maintain a maximum 105 percent capacity rate, and only then for brief periods overnight.  DJJ issued the order last month in light of budget limitations that no longer allow for the facilities to accommodate a longstanding policy of reaching a 120 percent capacity level during high intake periods.

“We used to operate at 120 percent, but we can’t operate at that level anymore,” said DJJ spokeswoman Scheree Moore. “We just don’t have the [budget] for that anymore. We are allowing the facilities to go up to 105 percent if the child arrives in late afternoon or at night, but by the next morning they must be transported to another less crowded facility.”

The question is who’s responsible for transporting the child the next morning.  Under DJJ policy and state law, it’s the job of local law enforcement to move the child to another facility and take the child to court.  DJJ handles transportation only after the child is processed through court and is sentenced to detention. “It certainly is more of a burden and a task for a sheriff’s deputy to be diverted to a center that’s far away,” said Rosenbloom. “We’re trying to limit the times they have to do that. We do whatever we can to leave room locally.”

RYDC staffers received the mandate in November via a DJJ memo. The details of the letter were shared with Council of Juvenile Court Judges of Georgia representatives last week in response to concerns some judges have raised about the new policy. It noted that since DJJ had been released from DOJ oversight more than a year ago due to previous overcrowding problems "it is now time to ensure that each RYDC operates within 100 percent of its capacity." The memo continued: “When capacity is exceeded it creates operational issues and safety and security concerns. Operating within our capacity helps avoid the possibility of returning to federal oversight.”

Rosenbloom added that overcrowded facilities contributed to staffing challenges and often required costly overtime pay. He said the policy change will also allow DJJ to avoid any threat of returning to the crowded conditions that led to the system’s problems with DOJ.

“It’s important to note that DJJ has always moved kids from one center to another,” Rosenbloom said. “Before we were doing it at 120 percent capacity; now we’re doing it at 105 percent. If a judge signs detention orders we have to honor that; we have the authority to determine what bed to put the kid in. No kid has been turned away from a facility.”

Rosenbloom said for the past year and a half DJJ facilities have been operating system wide below capacity. “The challenge is going to be when we have higher population demand,” he said. “We’re not there yet and I don’t anticipate us reaching that point anytime soon, but we’re going to have to make some decisions about how we’re going to manage this when or if all of our facilities ever reach capacity.”