Mike Klein Online

Georgia Supreme Court Apparently Needs Donated Pens and Pencils

Mike Klein

Agency executives continued their march to the State Capitol on Wednesday for Senate – House budget hearings. They discussed shrinking their staffs, lacking resources to replace aging state patrol vehicles, closing adult corrections facilities, managing juvenile justice reform and much more.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein brought it down to pens and pencils.

“We have given up a floor of office space, returned a much needed copy machine and had to rely on law students interning for academic credit to fill our various gaps in staffing the clerk’s office,” Hunstein said.  “We also take every precaution possible to minimize waste from recycling old paper to recycling bindings that come in on pleadings and to soliciting pen and pencil donations.”

Pen and pencil donations?  Really?  That puts an entirely new light onto state agency budgets.

Wednesday morning’s session produced its lightest moment when Georgia State Patrol / Public Safety Commissioner Colonel Bill Hitchens was asked about the impact of no-texting while driving legislation. “I notice a lot of people got both hands in their lap a lot more than they used to,” Hitchens deadpanned.

Wednesday’s second day testimony before the Joint Appropriations Committee was mostly spot-on serious from agency executives who recognize the current landscape. “We understand what we are all facing,” new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Amy Howell told the committee.

Governor Nathan Deal embraced corrections reform in his Inaugural Address. Wednesday morning legislators heard Department of Corrections commissioner Brian Owens announce that Metro State Prison in DeKalb County and six adult pre-release centers will close over the next year. Howell said Juvenile Justice has shut down hundreds of beds and canceled service provider contracts throughout the state.

Brian Owens at Corrections and Amy Howell at Juvenile Justice are fighting evil twins: Adult and juvenile populations that increase while resources and budgets decrease.

Amy Howell

“On any given day we serve 20,000 youth in the community and 2,000 youth in secure beds,” Howell said. Juvenile Justice currently operates six youth development centers with 674 beds and 22 youth detention centers with 1,287 beds. It provides resources to 92 courts and it runs a fully accredited school that provides basic and special education and vocational training.

Not quite two years ago, in May 2009, the federal government agreed to end its supervision of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The Georgia program operates today within the guidelines of a memorandum the administration of Governor Sonny Perdue signed with the federal government.

Howell told legislators that juvenile justice state funding has been reduced by $76.5 million since fiscal 2009, although some of that gap was plugged with $28 million in stimulus funds.  Four hundred youth detention beds were eliminated.  Two youth facilities closed.  Hundreds of staff lost their jobs. Governor Deal’s fiscal 2012 proposed budget would trim $15.8 million more from the $302 million current appropriation.

“With fewer resources available, the manner and environment in which DJJ serves youth has been altered,” Howell said. “In order to balance the interest of public safety and constitutionally secure facilities, DJJ must ensure that we are serving the right youth in the right place.”

Howell said new budget reductions will mean closing two more youth detention centers with 60 total beds. One-third of the $15.8 million will be saved with 112 personnel cuts. Paid overtime, eleven education positions and eleven administrative positions will be gone.  Four contracts with community service providers were canceled in advance of the new budget.

Howell came prepared to propose and advocate for several short-term strategies, among them:  New risk assessment tools to assist judges before juvenile sentencing, moving more youths from state facilities to community resources, and changing guidelines to provide flexibility for shorter or longer sentences.   Longer term, Howell asked legislators to consider authorizing more beds at existing facilities when funds are available.

“Despite difficult times and difficult decisions, this is a manageable budget,” Howell said.

Brian Owens

Juvenile detention and rehabilitation challenges are mirrored in the adult system which has 53,000 inmates, up from 46,000 in 2002. Three thousand inmates are being held in local custody until state beds are available. Another 154,000 are on probation. About 21,000 inmates enter the corrections system each year. The cost to maintain that system is slightly less than $1.1 billion per year.

“Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, we were in a lock them up and throw away the key mode,” Corrections Commissioner Owens told the committee. “Many of us remember that. It’s not just Georgia, the whole United States,” he said, recalling a movement toward three strikes, you’re out and stiffer mandatory sentences.

“I think the public is starting to get the fact that if we hold offenders accountable on the street, we provide them with addiction services, we provide them with mental health treatment, we drug test them every other day and hold them accountable, we make them pay restitution to victims, that’s what the public really wants.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 19, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,

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