Originally created 08/27/99

Alternatives sought to juvenile centers



ATLANTA -- Georgia's Board of Juvenile Justice on Thursday put the stamp of the department's new commissioner on its budget request for next year, asking for more money to explore alternatives to locking up every child who runs afoul of the law.

The department's $255.9 million budget proposal includes $2.1 million to double the number of community corrections units scattered throughout the state from 14 to 28, nearly $737,000 to standardize the operations of the existing 14 units and about $678,000 to hire 11 more workers to help move nonviolent children out of detention centers into less restrictive environments.

"We ought not to be putting kids into detention who don't need to be in there," Juvenile Justice Commissioner Orlando Martinez said after Thursday's meeting. "We can still give them control and structure in a community setting."

The budget also earmarks $381,000 for start-up and initial operating costs of a 20-bed substance-abuse unit at the department's Youth Detention Center in Augusta, scheduled to open in October. Young offenders anywhere in the system with drug or alcohol problems could be referred to the unit for treatment.

The department signed a memorandum of agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in March of last year, promising to make a series of improvements throughout the system in order to avoid a federal takeover of the state's 30 juvenile detention facilities. One of the federal requirements was that the department develop alternatives to incarcerating young offenders.

Employees in the community corrections units help steer children who are not considered a security threat toward such alternative programs as in-home placement, Deputy Commissioner Greg Maxey told the board during his budget presentation.

Determining which children qualify for alternatives to the detention centers is up to the department's case expeditors. Mr. Maxey said having 11 more of them on the job would allow the department to cover all of its regional youth detention centers.

"Nothing has helped more to get kids out of detention faster and more appropriately than using these case expeditors," he said.

Other highlights of the budget request include nearly $3.4 million to boost salaries for juvenile correctional officers. Part of those funds, $676,000, would cover the latter part of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, while the rest would be for fiscal 2001.

Mr. Maxey said the current starting salary of about $22,000 a year isn't enough to attract applicants in the competitive job market or keep the department's correctional officers from defecting to higher paying jobs with the state's adult prison system.

"We're really getting killed in recruiting," he said.

The budget plan next will be submitted to Gov. Roy Barnes to become part of the 2001 spending proposals he will send to the General Assembly in January.

Dave Williams is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.