Lack of accountability plagues state juvenile justice system
Within a matter of weeks last year, three youths died while in the custody of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
One of these incidents was particularly harrowing, after a youth perished during what was called a “fight game.” These were the first juveniles to die under the department’s care since 2015, but the recent spate suggests that something is amiss at the department.
Governments generally don’t excel at policing themselves, but every so often, officials from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts release reports exposing the troubling realities plaguing various state programs. Often, voters can hope that these findings will lead to improvements where they are needed most, including in Georgia’s criminal justice system. One of the most recent reports from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts detailed some weaknesses at the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, and state officials need to take its recommendations seriously.
The juvenile justice department is relatively new by state government standards—being created in 1992—but it has since grown. Now it maintains 25 youth correctional facilities across Georgia. In fiscal year 2022, the legislature appropriated $335 million to the Department of Juvenile Justice and 68 percent of that funding went toward operating its secure facilities. During that same year, the state housed nearly 1,000 youths in its detention centers.
The state auditor focused on these facilities as well as the department’s incident response and management, and highlighted plenty of concerning findings. According to the report, facilities frequently do not adhere to isolation policies, employees aren’t always reporting violent incidents and the agency lacks complete and accurate data sets, which would help provide better oversight and determine how they are performing. Ultimately, the auditor asserted, “Improved data and additional oversight are needed in multiple areas,” and understandably.
“Regarding incident reporting, nearly 40% of survey respondents indicated that incidents are not always reported for reasons including lack of consequences for those involved, unawareness of reporting requirements, and fear of retaliation from other staff,” reads the auditor’s report. Perhaps even more concerning, 10 percent of survey respondents admitted that their supervisor had at some point directed them not to file an official incident report.
“When incidents are reported, staff do not consistently follow policies regarding required notifications and administrative reviews,” according to the audit. What’s more, disciplinary data isn’t complete and the department underreports the use of solitary confinement.
Without proper reporting and cataloguing, the Department of Juvenile Justice cannot gain a comprehensive understanding of what’s happening in their facilities, determine what policies are most effective or make informed improvements. However, the auditor’s survey also reveals a lack of accountability among some juvenile justice staff and a work environment rife with fear, which is a troubling revelation.
Despite reported violent incidents plummeting in juvenile justice institutions, the use of isolation/solitary confinement for youths has either remained steady or increased in some facilities. “Between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, the average length of an isolation event increased from approximately half a day to over 1.5 days. In fiscal year 2022, approximately 17% (580) of the 3,400 isolation events were two or more consecutive days, and five events were longer than 30 consecutive days,” the auditor found. These statistics are incomplete since some facilities underreport isolation usage.
Sadly, “Internal audits found that most facilities do not adhere to isolation policies regarding initial approvals, extensions, and mental health consultations,” but they should strive to do better. Isolation can have deleterious effects on youths. The auditor admitted that “isolation has been found to cause depression, anger, paranoia, and psychosis among youth, best practices recommend limiting its use.”
While there may be times when isolation is necessary, it should be used sparingly. The goal of juvenile correctional institutions should be to help rehabilitate youths, not inflict lasting psychological damage. Even so, it appears that many corrections workers believe that there’s little rhyme or reason for much of the disciplinary process in youth facilities.
“[The] youth disciplinary process is inefficient and surveyed staff lack confidence in the process—42% disagreed that sanctions are applied to youth consistently and 40% disagreed that sanctions serve as an effective deterrent to youth misbehavior.”
The auditor’s report was thorough and offered myriad solutions, but most of the problems boil down to a couple issues: The Department of Juvenile Justice needs its institutions to consistently follow the same rules and disciplinary processes; the facilities need to adhere to better tracking and reporting standards; employees need to be held to a higher level of accountability; and finally, the department should exercise increased caution when using isolation.
While it isn’t clear whether the auditor’s recommendations would have saved the youths who died while in custody in 2022, they serve as a reminder that the Department of Juvenile Justice can and must do better.