“You’re dealing with youth in those facilities who have exhibited violence at one time or another,” former Commissioner Gale Buckner said. “So when you try to bring someone into that environment, you need people who are competent and capable and want to stay with you and make a career out of juvenile justice. It’s hard to do that when you’re bringing people in at $24,000 a year.”
Tight budgets make it hard to attract and train employees qualified to deal with young offenders who often have violent tendencies. The department’s operating budget fell from nearly $322 million in fiscal year 2008 to nearly $286 million in fiscal year 2012, a decrease of about 11 percent. It did rise to just over $300 million for the 2013 fiscal year, but that’s stretched thin covering a staff of more than 4,000 employees statewide, a network of short- and longer-term juvenile detention centers and community-based programs and supervision for low-risk offenders.
The Augusta Youth Development Campus has been the source of most of the negative headlines for the DJJ over the past year, including a fight that landed a 15-year-old in the hospital a week ago. In October, five youths escaped the same day an 18-year-old was sentenced to 17 years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the November 2011 death of Jade Holder, who was severely beaten in his room at the facility.
However, Augusta is not the only problem facility. An internal investigation into an August fight at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Center cited short staffing, a lack of trust among juvenile correctional officers and a growing cell block gang, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Three officers were hurt and 10 teens suffered minor injuries in the brawl, which was the third violent outbreak at the facility in just over a year.
In January, Juvenile Corrections Officer Mike Brown was terminated from the Aaron Cohn Regional Youth Detention Center in Columbus based on improper use of physical intervention techniques, and at the beginning of December Gainesville Regional Youth Detention Center business manager Lakita Edwards was arrested after she allegedly forged the signature of the center’s personnel technician onto job applicant background packets.
Other facilities have seen brawls, gang activity and misconduct by corrections officers, including inappropriate relationships with residents and distribution of contraband.
The fifth new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice since 2010, Niles has pledged to correct existing problems and strengthen safety and security practices. While the frequent turnover at the top inevitably causes some instability, that’s not the root of the department’s problems, observers say.
“I think it has more to do with budget cuts and the constraints they’ve been under in terms of funding than it does with the leadership,” Kirsten Widner, the policy and advocacy director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.
Niles said he would look to hire new people with military backgrounds.
“They need to have a person that can provide that guidance and that supervision like our military people have been exposed to,” he said.
Though budget cuts have caused some backsliding, former Commissioner Albert Murray, who led the department from 2004 to 2010 and was its longest-serving leader, said he has spoken to Niles and is convinced he’ll stick around for a while and bring about improvements.
“Avery comes to the position, I believe, with a good set of skills,” Murray said. “He seems to have the interest of the juveniles and the staff at heart, so there’s every reason to believe he will be a successful leader.”
And Niles may have some help from the Legislature. A special committee is set to finalize recommendations this month for overhauling the juvenile justice system. Much of the conversation at meetings this fall focused on finding ways to keep more low-risk offenders in the community rather than locking them up. That could save a lot of money and could improve the environment in the secure facilities, experts have said.
“Really focusing the use of those facilities on the kids who need them the most would make a huge difference because then the money could be redirected to meet the needs of those kids who are in the facilities, rather than just trying to manage a population that doesn’t necessarily need to be there,” Emory’s Widner said.
Staff Writer Summer Moore contributed to this story.