It came the same day an 18-year-old was sentenced to 17 years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the November 2011 death of Jade Holder, who was severely beaten in his room at the same facility. Last weekend, a fight there sent a 15-year-old inmate to the hospital for several days.
While the Augusta detention center has had its share of high-profile trouble in recent years, it’s not alone. Other facilities have seen brawls, gang activity and misconduct by corrections officers, including inappropriate relationships with residents and distribution of contraband.
The fifth new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice since 2010, Avery Niles, has pledged to correct existing problems and strengthen safety and security practices. While the frequent turnover at the top inevitably causes some instability, that’s not the root of the department’s problems, observers say.
“I think it has more to do with budget cuts and the constraints they’ve been under in terms of funding than it does with the leadership,” said Kirsten Widner, policy and advocacy director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.
Among other difficulties, tight budgets make it hard to attract and train employees qualified to deal with young offenders who often have violent tendencies. The department’s operating budget fell from nearly $322 million in fiscal year 2008 to nearly $286 million in fiscal year 2012, a decrease of about 11 percent. It did rise to just over $300 million for the 2013 fiscal year, but that’s stretched thin covering a staff of more than 4,000 employees statewide, a network of short- and longer-term juvenile detention centers, as well as community-based programs and supervision for low-risk offenders.
The Augusta Youth Development Campus has grabbed the most negative headlines over the past year or so. Recently departed Commissioner Gale Buckner conducted a series of inspections there in the months after Holder’s death that led to the firing or resignation of 11 people, including the director. But an internal audit in August still found numerous “deficiencies,” including a lack of qualified staff, improper admission procedures and a general lack of oversight, The Augusta Chronicle reported. Niles, on the job since Nov. 1, called the audit’s findings “unacceptable.”
The Juvenile Justice Department has said the Augusta facility had already begun correcting some of the problems identified in the report before the October escape. And a new director, expected to be named this month, will continue to focus on security improvements.