State budget cuts threaten support for juvenile detainee transition

The Georgia Senate now has the chance to weigh in on Marietta Republican Rep. Bert Reeves' anti-gang legislation that adds to the list of offenses covered, including human trafficking, child molestation and enticing a child. It is backed by Gov. Brian Kemp, who campaigned in 2018 with promises to crackdown on gang activity in Georgia.. luoman/Getty Images

The leader of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice said proposed cuts of about 150 vacant jobs in his department wouldn’t force him to change operations. After years of changes to state law under so-called criminal justice reform, his youth detention centers are about one-third vacant.

But some people worry that cutting the budget for the department and other agencies that help troubled young people avoid criminal activity would reverse those changes. 

“Since criminal justice reform, we’ve seen a steady decline of our population of kids in custody,” said Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver.

And more youth are living in their community, under various levels of supervision.

About 1,200 youth are held in long-term or short-term custody, Oliver told a joint state House-Senate appropriations hearing earlier this month. That compares to about 1,800 youth in custody in 2013 when former Gov. Nathan Deal pressed for a major rewrite of Georgia’s juvenile justice code.

That rewrite was one piece of the new approach to law and order policy over the past decade for both youth and adult offenders pushed through by the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Deal, a former juvenile court judge, made the initiative a top priority soon after he took office with an aim to reserve incarceration for the most dangerous criminals.

Deal’s policies and spending priorities were designed to nudge youthful offenders deemed less threatening toward rehabilitation, through family counselling and therapy that pairs professionals with children to help them learn to cope at school, with peers and in other settings. 

And it meant a change in philosophy, too: Some young people with lesser offenses are now candidates for support instead of youth detention, such as a child who persistently commits offenses that wouldn’t be a crime for a grown-up, like breaking curfew or skipping school.

A runaway, truant or curfew-breaker shouldn’t be treated the same as a kid who robbed somebody, argued supporters of Deal’s initiative. Instead, courts can review a Child in Need of Services case in a hearing that involves family. The goal is to find services to help the family to avoid future incarceration.

“So that’s really an effort to try to reach out to those youth that might become court-involved,” said state Rep. Mandi Ballinger, a Canton Republican who chairs the House Juvenile Justice Committee.

“But before they get court-involved, let’s see if we can’t give them some services, let’s see if we can address some of the issues that you’re having there before they go out and commit crimes,” Ballinger said.

The lower youth incarceration rate is part of the fruit of that new focus on services and support, she said. 

About 10,000 juveniles in Georgia get some kind of support from community programs now, Oliver said.

Georgia has made steady progress since the 2013 juvenile justice rewrite, said Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

But she’s concerned about what she sees as potential regression in Georgia’s draft budgets in the coming 17 months.

The department’s proposed mid-year cut to the 2020 spending plan leaves the agency $336 million for the year, down from the $351 million the governor approved last May. The department proposes to spend $332 million for the 2021 budget year that starts in July. Gov. Brian Kemp directed most state agencies last summer to cut spending by 4% in the budget year that started last July and 6% in next year’s spending plan.

Most of the department’s proposed savings come from the planned closing of a Sumter County facility in Americus and the elimination of about 150 vacant jobs across the state.

Some are secure jobs, positions typically associated with detention facilities. But others are intended to help with rehabilitation and successful transition into life after release, such as educators, therapists, people involved in probation supervision and job training.

“Those are the ones that distinguish the juvenile system from the adult system,” Carter said. “Those are the ones that give us the best chance at actually realizing the aims of the justice system, again, to restore youth to the communities and to their homes.”

A proposed cut of more than $1 million to the Juvenile Justice Incentive Grant program also is raising concerns. It’s administered by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and provides money for the evidence-based programs that serve as alternatives to juvenile lockups.

And proposed budget cuts at the Georgia Public Defender Council put nine vacant posts for attorneys for juveniles at risk.

“I do think that these proposed cuts really do represent a threat to the direction of reform,” Carter said. “We are now six years out of the start of these reforms. We have demonstrated success, but it’s early success. And that means that it’s very fragile.”

The jobs on the chopping block have been unfilled since July 1, 2018, although the department was still actively trying to fill them.

Even as he eliminates so many job slots, Oliver is still hiring for some areas of his department.

“We still have to get our staffing numbers up to the levels where they need to be in certain facilities,” he told lawmakers at a recent hearing.

The recent shrinking of Georgia’s youth detention center population could be reversed if legislation passes to send fewer young offenders to adult prison. Ballinger wants 17-year-olds to go through the juvenile justice system instead of the adult criminal justice system. 

“Seventeen-year-olds can’t sign contracts. They’re not legally adults in any form or fashion. They can’t join the military. They can’t do all of these grown-up things,” Ballinger said. “And yet we send our 17-year-olds to grown-up court, which is ill-equipped to deal with our 17-year-olds.”

Her House Bill 440, which would raise the age, was filed about halfway through the legislative session last year, but has not made it to the House floor. If it passes this year, Oliver might need some of the detention space he just reported as vacant to accommodate the older arrivals.

A Georgia Bureau of Investigation reports about 6,500 17-year-olds were charged with crimes in 2018.