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Westside Atlanta Charter … Changing Lives One Young Life at a Time

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Republished by Charter Confidential

Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”

Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”

They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.

“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”

A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown.  (See website links below.)

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”

Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in west Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.

“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.

Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically.  We’re going to teach them to solve problems.  We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”

The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.

“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”

Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.

“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”

Additional Resources:

Faith and Freedom Coalition
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Westside Atlanta Charter School

(Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. Mike on LinkedIn.)

April 27, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deal Administration Releases “Opportunity School District” Legislation



Republished by Charter Confidential.

Governor Nathan Deal’s administration began to build the intellectual equity case for his “Opportunity School District” initiative today during a joint House-Senate education committees hearing at the State Capitol. Deal is asking this year’s General Assembly to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that if approved by voters would give the state a new tool to combat failing schools.

The worst failing schools could essentially become “wards of the state” until they are fixed or suffer some other fate. Deal has said 23 percent of Georgia public schools graded “D” or “F” for three consecutive years.  The administration needs two-thirds approval by the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters in  November, 2016.  Georgia is considered a school choice leader because of progress in charter schools and tax credit scholarships but it does not have a recovery school option.

The Governor’s Office announced legislation today:  “In the governor’s proposal, persistently failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 on the Georgia Department of Education’s accountability measure, the College and Career Performance Index (CCRPI), for three consecutive years. The Opportunity School District would take in no more than 20 schools per year, meaning it would govern no more than 100 at any given time. Schools would stay in the district for no less than five years but no more than 10 years.”

The administration did not testify about specific legislation during the State Capitol hearing, relying instead on building-the-case witnesses from two neighboring states — Louisiana and Tennessee — that have similar models.  In Louisiana they are called recovery schools and in Tennessee they are called achievement schools.  The intent is the same, to provide an alternative option to rescue failed schools.  With alternatives come challenges and questions including facilities, funding, attendance zones, attracting high quality teaching and leadership talent and accountability.  All of these will undoubtedly be addressed many times during the General Assembly’s consideration of Governor Deal’s proposal.

The final moments of the two-hour hearing might have been the most dramatic when Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), testified that millions of dollars spent in Race to the Top education federal grants does not appear to have made much difference at public schools where those millions were invested.  The question he was asked and his answer are quoted at the bottom of this article.  This exchange makes a compelling argument that spending money, more money, does not by itself work.

Here is a description of the House – Senate committee hearing discussion as it occurred.  Note: the joint committee did not release an advance witness list.  The hearing was held at the Coverdell Office Building across from the State Capitol.  Watching online, the room seems packed to overflow, including senior policy advisers from the Governor’s Office.

1:10 – 1:45 p.m. — The first portion of the hearing has been devoted to witnesses from Louisiana who are discussing the state’s use of recovery school districts, especially since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated public education facilities, specifically in New Orleans. The first witness is Paul Pastorek, former Louisiana school superintendent and considered a reformer in public education accountability. (Click here to learn about his work.)  Recovery school districts were in place in 2005 but the state moved to re-emphasize non-traditional models as it rebuilt the ravaged public education system.  The second witness is Neerav Kingsland, chief executive officer at New Schools for New Orleans (click here) since May 2012.  New Schools is frequently cited as an education success story.

1:45 p.m. — Former Tennessee commissioner of education Kevin Huffman is discussing the state’s “Achievement School Districts” which are an alternative to traditional K-12 public education classrooms.  Charter schools are one part of this structure.  Huffman talked about trying to “make a match” between what communities need and charter schools that best fit the needs.  Huffman said one of the greatest constraints on growth is finding great leaders and teachers.  Memphis is a target area for this education innovation.  There currently are 16 Tennessee achievement schools.  Huffman said, “The early signs are promising but I think it’s early to judge because we have so few schools.  We look at New Orleans and that is what we want. We want the schools in Memphis to improve” similar to successes seen in Louisiana.  Huffman resigned his commissioner’s appointment in January 2015.

2:00 p.m. — The next witness is Sam Rauschenberg, Deputy Director at the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA).  A native Georgian, Rauschenberg moved to New Orleans in 2007 after he graduated with honors from Georgia College.  Rauschenberg taught math for three years at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans. He described the experience as “a tremendous struggle” because many students could not perform at or anything near grade level.  The school converted to a recovery school model several years ago; Rauschenberg said today overall academic performance at Joseph S. Clark High School has increased about 20 percent.

2:05 p.m. — Question Time from Senate and House members.  At this point there has not been any presentation about Governor Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District.  Committee members are asking questions to the Louisiana and Tennessee witnesses about accountability, how the states attracted quality instructional talent and whether charter schools were for-profit or non-profit models.

2:50 p.m. — Toward the end of the discussion Senator Donzella James asked a lengthy question. In part, she said, “Who is going to identify chronically failing schools, what’s the root cause of them and are we just taking money away from the public school system rather than putting more in it which seemed to be the reason that we were having the problems in the first place?”  Her question was directed to Sam Rauschenberg.  This was his response:

“I haven’t been in all the conversations about the bill but I will say our agency (GOSA) has been part of the evaluation work, the Race to the Top work, much of which was to turn around low-performing schools.  The state received a significant infusion of money for low achieving schools as well as school improvement grants (from) the federal government.  A lot of these schools got millions of dollars to do so and our analysis which is available on our website showed that only a few of those have made some gains but overall they have not made tremendous gains.  The model that was chosen was a transformation model which had very limited changes in the overall structure of the schools relative to the other options but there was a significant infusion of money into those schools over a three-year period.  I would go to those as examples of schools that were low-performing and had a lot of resources to answer that part of your question.”

3:00 p.m. — The meeting concluded.  No next meeting was announced.

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia K-12 public education since 2010.  He held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

February 11, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Next Move for Georgia Justice Reform Belongs to Legislators



Republished by Right on Crime and Capitol@Issue.

Georgia legislators will soon have the opportunity to reconfigure the state’s troubled adult misdemeanor private probation industry, redesign juvenile justice technology information tools and with some urging from their governor, create a new state agency to manage the tangled web of services to help released inmates transition back into their communities. Given the General Assembly’s track record of overwhelming support for previous justice reforms the ideas that you see discussed here are quite likely to happen.

The vision for these changes is contained in the 2014–2015 Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) report that was unanimously approved by its members late last week. More than just a reflection of new policy ideas, the 72-page document fully chronicles the history of Georgia’s current justice reform that began with Governor Nathan Deal’s inauguration in January 2011.

Dozens of CCJR recommendations are contained in the report. A few are game-changers:

Adult Misdemeanor Probation

Last spring Governor Deal vetoed a misdemeanor probation reform bill because it would have exempted providers from the Open Records Act. An official state audit was highly critical of the financial practices of some providers and it said some exceeded their legal authorities. Then in December the state Supreme Court overturned “tolling,” the long-standing practice under which arrest warrants were issued and sentences were paused when offenders failed to report or fulfill their court-ordered obligations. Justices said the state has no legal authority for those actions.

The Council said private probation providers should be placed under tighter financial scrutiny including strict disclosure rules. The Council recommended the adoption of community service options for misdemeanor probationers when they are delinquent paying fines or fees because of financial insolvency. At the same time, delinquent probationers would be guaranteed a hearing before new discipline. Further, the Council said that “tolling” should be enacted into law.

Juvenile Justice Information Sharing

Players in the adult criminal justice system have access to deep data that is maintained by the Georgia Crime Information Center at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Players in the juvenile justice system have nothing remotely close to the sophisticated adult system. The Council recommendation is to create a very sophisticated juvenile justice information system.

Under the CJRC proposal the Council of Juvenile Court Judges would create a “dictionary” of common terms for the purposes of statewide reporting. A data exchange would be created to share the information and a data depository would be updated daily by individual courts for use by all juvenile courts statewide and for purposes of statewide reporting. This project would bring together several entities and it would carefully comply with federal laws about juvenile records.

Department of Community Supervision

Last month Deal used his State of the State address to propose creation of DCS to assist released offenders toward a successful transition back to the free world.  The big idea here is to coordinate the tools to help reduce recidivism. DCS would likely have up to 2,000 employees drawn from adult corrections, juvenile justice and pardons and parole. The Council recommended that the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-Entry should move from adult corrections to DCS. It also recommended moving the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council that oversees probation officers and private entities.

The three ideas discussed here are just a small portion of the CCJR report. There is a link below to the complete document. The Council will reconvene in late spring after the 2015 General Assembly concludes.

The agenda will likely include whether cases that involve 17-year-olds should be heard in adult courts – that is current Georgia law – or in juvenile courts, which is where you will find age 17 cases in more than 40 states. This year’s Council heard testimony but concluded it needs more information before making any recommendation. Mandatory minimum sentencing options and new discussions about community-based mental health services could also work their way onto the 2015 – 2016 agenda.

Additional Resources

2014 – 2015 GA Criminal Justice Reform Council Report

Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council Website

Georgia’s New Justice Agency Would Have Massive Footprint

Attacking the Bad Headlines Around Misdemeanor Private Probation

Georgia Targets Huge Gap With Juvenile Justice Databank Project

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia criminal justice reform since 2010.  He held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

February 10, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Early Political Education of Richard Woods



The path for Richard Woods to become Georgia’s new state schools superintendent opened after his predecessor committed political suicide. John Barge might still have the top education office if he had not alienated Governor Nathan Deal, made fellow Republicans furious and simultaneously angered thousands of school choice families.

Barge broke with Deal in August, 2012 when he said he would not support a constitutional amendment to recreate the state’s charter schools commission. Barge aligned himself with the traditional education establishment that dislikes charters and especially alternate authorization.

Suddenly an outsider among Republicans and ignored by the Governor’s Office, Barge made the decision to announce he would leave the Superintendent’s office after one term to challenge Deal in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary; thus ended John Barge’s career, at least that phase of it.

Woods appears to have noticed how that played out. This was obvious when Woods delivered opening remarks at the Georgia Charter Schools Association leadership conference. A surprise guest, Governor Deal, made an early morning decision to attend with First Lady Sandra Deal.

“I am a friend of charter school K-12 innovation,” Woods told educators who packed the Busbee Center Auditorium last Friday morning at Gwinnett Technical College. “People will get to know me and I will get to know you but I guarantee you this, you will have no stronger advocate, no stronger person that will support and sing the praises of the work that you do.

“I will work to make sure you have the funding, the personnel and the resources you need to reach every child that comes through your door,” Woods said during an eight-minute address. He concluded, “Across the state we want to make sure we allow teachers to do the one thing they want to do, that is, close your door and teach and reach their child.”

Barge became Superintendent when Republicans swept the state’s top executive offices in November 2010. He was viewed as being a supportive player in summer 2011 when Barge worked to help keep 17 charter schools open for 16,000 students after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled a state charter schools commission that was established in 2008 was unconstitutional.

One year later his decision to oppose a charter schools commission constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot aligned Barge with local boards of education and superintendents. The amendment passed with 58 percent. Barge chose to stand side-by-side with a bureaucracy that could not save him from political extinction.

The next few years will be exciting and challenging. Deal wants to create an Opportunity School District that would allow the state to take custody of failing schools. His new Education Reform Commission will propose long overdue changes to public schools funding. Supporters will advocate for creation of education savings accounts and expansion of tax credit scholarships.

Woods talks about wanting to cultivate “good press” to replace the “bad stories” about Georgia public education. His chances for success will be greatly enhanced by recognition of who makes and who implements policy. Georgia is a school choice leader. John Barge possibly would still be there if he had made a different decision. Richard Woods seems to already understand that.

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia public education since 2010.  He has held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

RICHARD WOODS Georgia State Schools Superintendent (Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

Georgia State Schools Superintendent
(Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

February 4, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia’s New Justice System Agency Would Have Massive Footprint



Governor Nathan Deal’s proposed Department of Community Supervision (DCS) would almost certainly open for business as a large state agency with perhaps two thousand or more employees, according to state officials who are familiar with ongoing strategic discussions.

Governor Deal emphasized Georgia’s commitment to adult and juvenile justice system reforms during Monday’s Inaugural Address but he waited until Wednesday’s State of the State speech to announce DCS. Legislation is needed to create the agency; therefore, there is no proposed budget for DCS in the Governor’s Office Fiscal Year 2016 Budget released Friday.

“On many occasions, one troubled family or neighborhood will deal with multiple agencies, from Pardons and Parole to DFCS (Division of Family and Children Services) to the Department of Juvenile Justice to the Department of Corrections,” Deal told legislators on Wednesday.

“Under current policy those agencies often don’t coordinate effectively on these cases. This fails to bring a holistic approach to the needs at hand, and it doesn’t deliver services efficiently,” Deal said. “For this reason I am proposing to create the Department of Community Supervision to eliminate redundancy and enhance communication between these related groups.”

Here is what we learned about the potential structure by speaking with justice system officials:

• 1,100 or more adult felony probation officers would transfer from the Department of Corrections (DOC) and 400 or more Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) field officers.
• Georgia adult misdemeanor probation is handled almost exclusively by the private sector; DCS would supervise the approximately 775 probation officers statewide.
• A large number of personnel would transfer from the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) but the number is less certain.
• The new agency would require its own commissioner and administration team to include a chief financial officer, human resources team and other typical agency services.
• And: it would need a headquarters with Atlanta being a potential location. Two-of-three contributing agencies – Juvenile Justice and Pardons and Paroles – are located in Atlanta. The Corrections headquarters is in Forsyth but it also has a major Atlanta offices presence.

DCS is a logical step in a comprehensive multi-year justice system strategy that Georgia began to implement in January 2011. Reforms had been underway for many years but often they were not always well-coordinated and there was widespread agreement that a new focus could slow down the growth in adult prisoner populations, reduce or at least stabilize incarceration costs, save hundreds of millions of dollars by eliminating new prisons construction and give released inmates and probationers better tools to create personal success.

The first step was creation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform in 2011. The Council has consistently embraced alternative sentencing options for non-violent offenders. Accountability courts and community-based programs have given judges more options than just incarceration. Lawmakers passed very similar looking adult reforms in 2012 and juvenile reforms in 2013.

The second step focused on recidivism reduction, that is, the percentage rate at which offenders are charged with a new crime within three years of their initial release. The Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Re-Entry was founded and is currently housed at DOC in Atlanta. Its mission has been to define problems and articulate potential solutions to challenges that include food, housing, education, employment, transportation and more for released offenders.

Next week the Council on Criminal Justice Reform is expected to recommend that Transition, Support and Re-Entry move to DCS, along with the County and Municipal Probation Advisory Council (CMPAC) that oversees adult misdemeanor probation statewide. CMPAC is currently attached to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Community Supervision would become the second agency created during Deal’s administration. The Department of Public Health became a standalone agency when it was separated from the Department of Community Health in July 2011.

(Mike Klein has covered Georgia adult and juvenile justice reforms since early 2010.  He has held executive leadership positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and  Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

January 18, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Attacking the Bad Headlines Around Misdemeanor Private Probation



You know you’re not having a good year when virtually all the headlines explode in your face and that is the atmosphere around Georgia’s adult misdemeanor probation industry.

It is a foregone conclusion the state will re-engineer this policy sector in which private and public providers supervise about 175,000 adults whose misdemeanor offenses such as traffic tickets landed them in court. Soon we will know what that might mean in terms of 2015 legislation.

Adult misdemeanor probation headlines this year included Georgia General Assembly passage of a potential reform bill that backfired, Governor Nathan Deal’s veto of that same legislation, a highly critical state audit of misdemeanor probation services, a Georgia Supreme Court ruling that shook up misdemeanor probation and lots of opinion about what should be done next.

The Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) appointed by Governor Deal is among several entities with a large voice in the conversation. Last week the CCJR approved several recommendations.  The Council has a three-hour meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Atlanta but the agenda has not been announced.  The Council waded into misdemeanor probation at Governor Deal’s request.

Here is a very scaled down summary of some major moving parts:

HB 837 passed the House and Senate in March and would have exempted private probation providers from the Open Records Act. They would be required to report fees earned to the court, governing authority or council that entered into a contract for their services, but records would not be available to the public. Deal vetoed the bill in April.

• Also in April an official state audit reported on 35 private sector providers that supervised about 80% of misdemeanor probationers statewide in August 2013. (See Project 12-06) The audit found loose policies and procedures, inconsistencies statewide, improper fees being imposed by some providers and much more that was detailed in a 73-page report. Some providers acted outside their authority by gaming the system to force probationers to pay their fees early, extending probation terms without court authorization, improperly accounting for fees paid by probationers and even obtaining arrest warrants.

• Last month the state Supreme Court in the Sentinel Offender Services case (link) upheld the legality for court systems to contract with private probation service providers but it also held that many of their practices were in fact beyond the scope of their authority.

When it met last week in Atlanta the CCJR discussed recommendations to address the state Supreme Court’s November 24 ruling in Sentinel. The company provides misdemeanor private probation services throughout Georgia including Columbia and Richmond counties.

Thirteen plaintiffs who were sentenced to misdemeanor probation in Columbia and Richmond county courts asserted in a lawsuit that the state statute that allows for private offender services is unconstitutional. Further, they asserted that Sentinel unlawfully collected supervision fees and violated their due process rights, even seeking arrest warrants without court authorization.

In their unanimous opinion the Supreme Court justices upheld the statute that allows courts to contract with private probation services. The justices also ruled a misdemeanor probationer’s sentence cannot be extended beyond the original order and in another aspect of Sentinel the Court said electronic monitoring of misdemeanor probationers is permissible. The decision also sent several cases back to lower courts for further resolution.

In brief summary, CCJR recommendations approved last week would require that reports filed by private probation services would become public records. Probationers would have improved access to their files including the financial records for fines they paid. Arrest warrants could not be sought if a probationer missed a scheduled meeting or payment. Indigent probationers could have their fines and fees converted to public service. Courts would have the authority to modify or suspend fees. Finally, probationers would be guaranteed a hearing before any decision to suspend their sentence because of a failure to pay fines, fees or costs.

The Council will have further recommendations on private probation services. The Council’s final report will be submitted to Governor Deal and the Legislature in mid-to-late January. This will be the fourth criminal justice reform annual report. The previous three dealt with adult and juvenile justice and adult re-entry reforms.

(Mike Klein has held executive leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. His justice articles are often republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Right on Crime” initiative. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Targets Huge Gap with Juvenile Justice Databank Project



For discussion purposes, let’s imagine you are a juvenile court judge somewhere in Georgia. A young man and his attorney are standing before you, pleading the boy’s case. Within minutes you will decide whether the boy is sentenced to detention or a community-based program.

Something about how the young man tells his story makes you question, what else is going on here?  Has this kid been kicking around without a family, without role models, without direction and what he needs is help or, is this one of those kids who really needs to be off the streets?  Is this kid about to hurt himself or someone else?  What is the right decision here?

So knowing that these questions must be answered you log onto the state’s massive juvenile justice databank that contains everything you need. The young man’s entire legal record is there, all his previous interactions with the juvenile justice system, a record of every arrest, all previous court decisions, outstanding warrants for other alleged crimes committed in any county statewide.

It’s all there, everything you need to decide between detention and a treatment program.

Except that it’s not there because, astonishingly, there is no statewide juvenile justice databank. An adult databank – the Georgia Crime Information Center — is maintained at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. There is no comparable juvenile resource. Georgia juvenile judges sometimes operate in a weird blind man’s alley when they try to understand the true picture about a troubled kid.  Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Steve Teske has said sometimes he uses his cell phone from the bench to contact other judges who might know something about a juvenile who is standing before him in court.

That should start to change next year with the anticipated creation of a juvenile justice data dictionary and repository that would be accessible throughout law enforcement. The Council on Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) appointed by Governor Nathan Deal has worked on the project all year. It unanimously approved recommendations during a meeting this week in Atlanta.

Pulling this idea together meant coordinating stakeholders who have reason to make this work:

• The Council of Juvenile Court Judges technology committee would create a dictionary of defined data elements to be used for the statewide reporting of all juvenile justice data. An electronic exchange that complies with U.S. Justice Department global justice data sharing standards would be created to share the information.
• Data would be accessible through a new electronic repository that would be maintained in a partnership between the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Information would be updated daily and would be available to individual courts and for statewide reporting purposes.
• Further, the Department of Juvenile Justice would fund the entire project because it is the single state entity that is responsible for housing youth and state juvenile records.

The Council recommendation does not include a fiscal note. It also does not propose legislation during the 2015 General Assembly. Next year would be devoted to creating and launching the model under the auspices of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and the CCJR with an expectation that the dictionary and its usage would be recommended as a state law in 2016.

In the juvenile justice oversight committee meeting on Tuesday, December 2, CCJR co-chair Thomas Worthy said there is “concern over not only what we are collecting but how we do it.” The electronic data dictionary and exchange would focus on pre-disposition risk assessment, detention assessment data and overall juvenile case disposition.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had in general including juvenile courts is data and we have it across the broad spectrum of agencies in the state,” said Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs who co-chairs the Council with Worthy. “We’ve got a lot of duplication of effort, a lot of collection of data that will ultimately drive public policy but only if it is accurate.”

The Council’s 2014 final report due next month will also include recommendations to change how the state handles adult misdemeanor probation. This political hot potato came into focus during 2014 when an internal state audit was highly critical of privately-managed misdemeanor probation practices. This year Governor Deal vetoed a misdemeanor probation reform bill because he felt that it lacked transparency. The state Supreme Court also ruled on a private probation case in November.

The Council’s final report will be submitted to Governor Deal and the Legislature in mid-to-late January. The 2015 General Assembly opens on Monday, January 12, at the State Capitol in Atlanta.

(Mike Klein has held executive leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  His justice articles have been republished by the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s “Right on Crime” initiative.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

December 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

40 Years Later, Bill Bolling Prepares to Launch Urban Farms and Gardens



1975: America was recovering from scandal and mired in malaise. All around there was a feeling we could do better. In Atlanta, a young man named Bill Bolling opened a community kitchen to help feed the city’s growing homeless population. Four decades later he’s still feeding hungry Georgians with an eye on new projects and his planned departure next year from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Imagine that, no Bill Bolling at the ACFB. That’s almost like no chicken in chicken soup.

“We actually have empty shelves,” Bolling said as we walked through the Food Bank’s massive warehouse on Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard northwest of downtown Atlanta.  “We ought to be bulging in November. We used to raise so much food that it would last until February or March. Nowadays it’s going out faster.”

When the Atlanta Regional Commission decided to start a new monthly Perspectives Speakers series the first invitation went to Bolling because, as moderator Craig Lesser noted, the series should discuss “issues we need to be thinking about if we are going to be a better community later today, next week, five years, ten years and fifteen years from now.”

Lesser told the diverse audience of community leaders, executives and educators that successful communities are “not just about successful people. It’s about how do we address issues that are equally if not more important about a large segment of our population.” In Georgia, one-in-four children and one in every five people do not always have enough to eat.

ACFB LogoWhen Bolling leaves his position as ACFB executive director next year he will launch an urban agriculture project that already has established lofty goals: hundreds of new community gardens, urban farms, farm-to-table and farm-to school initiatives. “This is the hottest thing going on,” Bolling said. “Young people three generations off the farm think it’s neat. They forget how hard the work is!”

Bolling founded what would become the Atlanta Community Food Bank in 1979 in the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church basement. This year the ACFB will distribute almost 60 million pounds of food, enough to prepare 37 million meals, changing lives one plate at a time for 750,000 who need food assistance in metro Atlanta and 29 north Georgia counties. The Food Bank has 650 community partner organizations. It picks up food from 400 grocery stores. It works with manufacturers. It will receive can-by-can donations from 700 holiday food drives before the end of the year.  It prepares and distributes hot food.

Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2014” report says nationally four-in-ten client households have children under age 18 and one-in-three has someone 60 years or older. Eight-in-ten of the ACFB client households live at or below the poverty line which is $23,850 for a family of four. Six-in-ten who use food assistance held jobs within the past year and six-in-ten have more than a high school degree.

“If there were easy answers to these systemic issues we’re smart enough we would have figured them out,” Bolling said. “You start talking about wages, income mobility, income equality, that’s a hard conversation to have. Eventually we’ve got to have it. The narrative now is poor people blame the rich, the rich blame the poor and we all blame government. One of the things about the Food Bank is, we are the table for that discussion.”

Atlanta Community Food Bank Founder and Executive Director Bill Bolling

Atlanta Community Food Bank Founder and Executive Director Bill Bolling

The ACFB provides free supplies to teachers in 13 school systems. “Teachers know kids,” said Bolling. “They know which one’s hungry.” As a designated first responder it keeps on hand truckloads of water and emergency supplies. With Emory University it developed a “Hunger 101” course that is taught at food banks nationwide.

The ACFB has a full-time employee who works with Georgia farms to identify and harvest surplus produce before it rots. Each year the food bank distributes 12 million pounds of produce. “For kids you’ve got to make it cool to eat good food,” Bolling said during our warehouse tour. The food bank created its own nutrition and wellness center and it operates 15 mobile pantries weekly.

To suggest that the ACFB merely distributes food to community partners who get it into the hands of people in need would be way off-target. Today’s Food Bank is equal parts passion, relationships, logistics, transportation, collaboration, humanity, accountability and bringing people to the table who otherwise might not be there.  Some of the biggest names in corporate Georgia provide people and expertise at no cost because they understand that the Food Bank builds communities, one plate at a time.

When he does leave next year there will not be any ceremonial office kept warm. The new management team that Bolling began to build almost two years ago will be fully in charge and the 150 full-time professionals and the 20,000 annual volunteers will carry on.

As we walked through the massive warehouse full of thousands of boxes and bottles of stuff Bolling joked that sometimes the Food Bank gets products like raisin bran simply because there are too many raisins in the box. As he noted, “This is an interesting place to eat!”

(Click here to learn more about the Atlanta Community Food Bank.)

(Mike Klein is a journalist who has held executive and content leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

November 4, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Approves Aggressive Blueprint for Prisoner Reentry Initiative



Georgia criminal justice reform will push the pedal hard over the next several months with rapid expansion of the state’s prisoner reentry initiative. Millions of federal grant dollars will become seed money for fifteen pilot project sites starting now through the 2017 calendar year. The goal is to give released inmates a better chance to succeed when they go outside the walls.

“If we really want to impact statewide recidivism reduction we’ve got to make sure we are targeting our resources on the right individuals and, by the way, the right interventions as well,” says Jay Neal, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Transition, Support and Reentry.

The state Council on Criminal Justice Reform voted to approve a three-year prisoner reentry initiative (GA-PRI) when it met this week in Atlanta. The Council also approved a presentation Georgia will make during a Pew Charitable Trusts conference next month in San Diego.

Recidivism is the rate at which prisoners are re-arrested for a felony crime within three years of their prison release. Georgia’s historic rate has hovered at about 30 percent. The GA-PRI goal is to reduce recidivism to 25 percent within two more years and 24 percent within five years.

Last month the U.S. Justice Department said Georgia will receive $6 million over three years to support prisoner reentry. The breakdown is $3 million for recidivism reduction, $1.75 million for faith-based prison in-reach, $750,000 for pardons and parole and $500,000 to improve justice information systems. New employee salaries and benefits will be paid by the federal grants for one year before those positions transition to state budget dollars.

The 2015-year pilot projects are in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah. Ten pilot locations have been selected for 2016 and 2017 but not the order in which they will launch before the initiative is expanded statewide by the end of the 2018 calendar year.

Neal describes GA-PRI as “one plan, one strategy” but he also says, “We’re going to see that our local councils are not going to look the same from one site to the next. Reentry plans are not going to be identical because each site has a different set of assets and barriers and gaps and quite frankly, a different set of returning citizens who are coming back as well.”

The heart of this initiative is to provide former offenders with improved health and mental health services, housing and employment opportunities, training and more consistent positive contact. Neal warned the council that Georgia should not waste “an incredible opportunity’ to build upon some of the early successes since GA-PRI launched about one year ago.

The Pew National Conference on Justice Reinvestment will be held in November in San Diego. Georgia will discuss the impact of reforms before and since the Council was created in 2011. Adult criminal justice, juvenile justice and prisoner reentry policies were addressed in the 2012 – 2014 legislatures. Here is some of the data Georgia will present:

• Adults in custody declined from 60,818 in 2007 to 56,203 in 2014.
• Adults on probation increased from 142,663 in 2007 to 165,494 in 2014.
• Adults on parole increased from 20,823 in 2007 to 25,195 in 2014.
• The adult violent offender population increased from 60% in 2007 to 68% in 2014.
• The adult non-violent offender population decreased from 40% in 2007 to 32% in 2014.
• County jail backlog expenditures declined from $25 million in 2012 to $40,000 in 2014 after the statewide adoption of mandatory electronic sentencing packages.
• County jail populations are down from 94% capacity in 2010 to 78% capacity in 2014.

The Council agenda for November includes discussion on several possible recommendations:

• Creation of a juvenile justice “data dictionary” to ensure common language is used.
• Standardization of juvenile court data exchanges to create uniformity across the state.
• Adoption of a universal school discipline code to standardize juvenile discipline.
• More discussion about community-based juvenile detention alternatives.
• A hard focus on adult misdemeanor private probation transparency proposals.
• Potential changes to “life without parole” for non-violent recidivist drug offenders.
• Clarifications to criminal records expungement under the adult “First Offender Act”.
• Other topics could also be placed on the agenda.

The Council will schedule at least one December meeting before issuing its final report that is due to Governor Nathan Deal before the General Assembly returns on January 12, 2015.

(Mike Klein is a journalist who has held management and content leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

October 31, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Federal Election Commission “Dark Money” Search Could Hurt Nonprofits

(This article was published by the Georgia Center for Opportunity.)



While voters fixate on an election next week that could change Washington’s balance of power, some also are looking ahead to next year’s Federal Election Commission agenda that will include an effort by incoming chair Ann Ravel to overhaul campaign finance disclosure law. Ravel has established her target-of-choice: corporate political action committees and super PAC expenditures after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that ended independent spending limits.

Thousands of non-profit groups could become caught in a tidal wave of proposed changes that might impact how local, state and national organizations can advocate for children’s welfare, education, health care and virtually any other policy. The concept of the “anonymous donor” who makes community projects and thinking happen could be derailed without considerable care to protect the rights individuals have to use their personal money as they desire.

“Dark money” is the pejorative term opponents created to talk about corporate political action committee and super PAC spending. Ravel speaks openly about “problems we have with these dark money groups” and her view that “people are getting disgusted about what’s happening.” She says, “Polls have shown that elected officials are primarily serving their large contributors and not their constituents. That view is held equally by Republicans and Democrats.”

The FEC vice chair was at Emory University in Atlanta last week on the final leg of a three-city swing described as a listening tour to gather public input before her 2015 planned initiative. Other stops were Denver in early October and the University of Chicago’s new Institute of Politics that was founded by President Barack Obama’s political operative David Axelrod. Obama appointed Ravel to the six-member Federal Election Commission in October 2013. The FEC has three Republican and three Democratic commissioners. Ravel becomes chair in 2015.

The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act is the cornerstone of U.S. election law. Perhaps more appropriately, it has become at least a time capsule and perhaps even a tomb as the FECA has not been amended since 1979. Changes to national election finance laws have mainly occurred because of FEC rules and regulations or because federal courts decided various questions brought over three and one-half decades.

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United vs. FEC) struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions. It opened the door to spending by non-profit groups to support or oppose a candidate without having to disclose donors who could be individuals or other entities including corporations. The Center for Competitive Politics says that spending accounted for $311 million of the $7.3 billion spent in the 2012 election cycle.

Georgia State University law school professor Anne Tucker cited higher numbers when she joined Ravel onstage in Atlanta. Tucker said corporate political action committees spent $360 million in the 2012 election cycle and she said super PAC funds accounted for another $75 million. Tucker said 1,220 super PACs that do not disclose their donors raised over $520 million for the 2014 midterm elections. Tucker like Ravel supports the expansion of disclosure.

Thursday evening’s Emory event was far from a balanced discussion. Twenty-eight speakers approached the microphone and nearly all said the same thing: Someone must stop the inflow of corporate and other big money into politics. “I tell people your vote is your voice but I recently have come to believe that I am wrong. Sadly today your dollar is your voice,” said Robin Collins. “We argue that corporate spending in elections should not be equated to the First Amendment rights of individual citizens,” said Cindy Strickland. Another speaker noted she was “invited to this and also reminded” to attend.

Context is often lost where passion prevails. There was important context from William Loughery who knows of what he speaks. Now living in Georgia, the soft-spoken Loughery is a former chief of staff to United States Senator Arlen Specter, a former FEC staffer and he participated in writing the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act which as noted above has not been amended in thirty-five years.

“When we wrote the Federal Election Campaign Act there never was any enforcement so why would anyone waste time on independent expenditures,” said Loughery. “The fundamental problem is nobody wants to change the law, nobody wants to make a significant radical change to update it because basically, the whole process would be captive of the current members of Congress and even the members of the Commission are basically captives of Congress. Technology has changed, a lot of other things have changed and there’s nothing being done to update the law.”

Battle plans have specific objectives but battles produce collateral damage. Non-profit groups that focus entirely on policies could become swept up in a federal election campaign law disclosure reform movement. As a young Emory student told the panel, “You have to look for the unintended consequences and protect individual rights, freedom of speech and the legitimacy of our democracy. That’s not an easy task.”

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production. Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

October 30, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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