ATLANTA — Some media groups and child advocates are trying to block legislation that would stop the release of reports of abuse in Department of Juvenile Justice facilities.
Senate Bill 69 is undergoing review in a House committee and might not get voted on before this year’s legislative session ends Thursday night. Then, the bill would be up for consideration in the House next year because the Senate has already passed it 51-0.
“DJJ needed a bill that would protect juvenile witnesses who would be hurt or endangered if the population in lock-up learned some youths were passing along key information to our internal affairs investigators and corrections officers who collect intelligence information,” the department said in a statement issued in response to questions Tuesday. “That same bill would also have protected youths who were reporting wrongdoing by DJJ staff inside secure facilities.”
Many problems became public following the death of a teenager in the Augusta Youth Development Center. The resulting probe concluded another juvenile committed the murder, but it also led to the arrest or firing of guards, supervisors and the director in Augusta and other facilities.
The privacy bill is separate from a sweeping reform of how juveniles are treated by the state. That legislation has already passed and is awaiting the governor’s signature to become law. It will have the majority of delinquent children under supervision by their home counties.
Even after the reforms take effect, violent delinquents will be locked up in the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Youth Development Centers. It’s there that SB 69 would stop disclosures of abuse reports.
Officials pointed out that the Department of Corrections already has similar laws against release of documents about inmate abuse complaints in adult prisons.
The reason for the confidentiality is because investigators say cooperative juveniles stop providing information when they see media coverage containing details they provided. Existing law prohibits naming juveniles in the facilities.
Documents related to investigations are also confidential under existing law until the investigations are complete. But the initial report of the incident, which is currently made public, is what the department wants to keep to itself because it said it’s not hard for the other juveniles to figure out who snitched.
In exchange, the SB 69 would require annual reports of abuse complaints.
“So, contrary to some (news) reports, the intent of this bill was not to limit information about alleged abuse occurring at juvenile detention facilities. It was to encourage more,” said Commissioner Avery D. Niles. “In fact, the Department of Juvenile Justice has established an ongoing reputation for public transparency in its practice of punishing policy violators and prosecuting lawbreakers within the agency.”
Critics say the department is trying to keep its bad news out of sight. There has been plenty of bad news in recent years, including numerous cases of physical, sexual and financial abuse.
Juvenile Justice officials say they have a history of being forthcoming with embarrassing news, including a news release issued Monday of the arrest of the business manager of the agency’s Sandersville facility for theft.
But Melanie Velez, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said those problems are why the reports of abuse need to be released.
“The legislature should not allow the department to shield its own misbehavior,” she said. “…In order for the Department of Juvenile Justice to be held accountable, it’s important for the public to have access to that information.”
Hollie Manheimer, director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, asked the House Juvenile Justice Committee to change the bill to shield only the identity of the juveniles, not the information they provide.
“The public has a keen interest in abuses in the juvenile-justice system, and elsewhere in the code, the law already permits the redaction of information if appropriate to protect others,” she wrote.
But David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, believes the current version of the bill is fine.
“In its current form, it appears to be sound public policy to protect the identity of children under the supervision of the department who report abuse in the juvenile system,” he said. “Also, it is good policy to require the Department to furnish an annual report on the number of reports of abuse or wrongdoing received annually.”