Government

More News | | | Editor

Bill would make YDC abuse reports secret

Tuesday, March 26, 2013 10:54 PM
Last updated Wednesday, March 27, 2013 12:08 AM
  • Follow Government

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.”

COMPLETE STATEMENT FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF JUVENILE JUSTICE:

DJJ originally advocated for HB69 out of concern about maintaining the confidentiality of our ongoing investigations inside Georgia’s juvenile detention centers. DJJ needed a bill that would protect juvenile witnesses who would be hurt or endangered if the population in lock-up learned some youth were passing along key information to our internal affairs investigators and corrections officers who collect intelligence information. That same bill would also have protected youth who were reporting wrongdoing by DJJ Staff inside secure facilities.

As it now stands under the Georgia Open Records Law, reporters can access these juvenile witness statements from DJJ Special Incident Reports soon after any violent incident occurs -- and weeks before the official investigations can legally conclude and punish the wrong-doers.

Even with the witness names redacted for the public on the outside, it’s not hard for other juveniles on the inside to figure out who among the witnesses made statements to connect them to illegal acts and prosecutions.

HB69 was also drawn-up to protect youth who provide information about criminal activity in their neighborhood from retribution when they are released from detention. It would also protect state officers attempting to gather follow-up intelligence on the street.

“So contrary to some reports, the intent of this bill was not to limit information about alleged abuse occurring at juvenile detention facilities,” said Commissioner Avery D. Niles. “It was to encourage more. 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.”

“One look at our website shows DJJ goes to great lengths to maintain high integrity among its staff,” said Assistant Commissioner Mark Sexton. “And if violations do occur, the Commissioner calls in the GBI to conduct third party investigations, whether it’s for youth- on- youth assaults or for staff accused of criminal behavior. The names of violators are then published in news releases statewide.”

The Department of Juvenile Justice declined comment about HB69 when changes in the original intent and language no longer covered DJJ Internal Affairs investigations and the bill went back to committee. The Department of Juvenile Justice stands by its original intent for a bill that would help maintain the confidentiality of ongoing investigations inside Georgia’s juvenile detention centers and protect juvenile witnesses who would be hurt or endangered for passing along key information to investigators collecting intelligence information for those ongoing investigations.

Comments (1) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
nocnoc
44736
Points
nocnoc 03/27/13 - 05:27 am
1
1
Poor Headline

It makes the reader initially think that GA YDC wants the ability to hide their abuses.

A better more honest headline is:

House seeks YDC Informant Protection Act.

An I agree it is needed even in prisons.

Back to Top

Search Augusta jobs