Lawsuit brought by juvenile offender will cost taxpayers $3 million

Exterior view of the Paulding County Regional Youth Detention Center.

Credit: Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Credit: Kent D. Johnson, kdjohnson@ajc.com

Exterior view of the Paulding County Regional Youth Detention Center.

After 2 ½ years in custody, the habitual car thief was six months away from release from the Eastman Youth Development Campus when an attack left him with permanent brain damage and taxpayers with a $3 million settlement to provide for a lifetime of care.

His attacker, a known predator, is now sentenced to 10 years in an adult prison, at a cost of $50 per day for taxpayers.

“You have kids go there and they are being assaulted,” said attorney Thomas Sampson, who represents the car thief, now 21, who was attacked while he was locked up in a juvenile detention center years ago. “It’s the wild, wild west in these facilities.”

The ills and costs of the state’s juvenile justice system reach beyond just those under its jurisdiction and into the pockets of taxpayers who have to cover the costs of lawsuits and fixing a violent system.

The issue of mingling non-violent juvenile offenders with dangerous offenders, made more troubling by chronic staffing shortages, is one that is being addressed by state officials.

On Jan. 1, Georgia law will require non-violent juvenile offenders to be diverted away from YDCs, prisons for juveniles.

But the idea isn’t new and it’s one The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has been chronicling for years.

In 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice threatened to take over Georgia’s juvenile detention facilities because of several problems, including violence and mixing dangerous offenders with non-violent ones.

The required improvements cost taxpayers $65 million. The state came up with additional money to increase the starting salary of $19,000 for new officers to slow turnover; it’s now $25,000. The Department of Juvenile Justice came out from under Department of Justice oversight in 2009.

But now, officials again are grappling with many of the same problems that got the state in trouble with the Department of Justice— not enough guards and locking up kids for less serious crimes with stronger, more violent offenders.

“They aren’t being protected,” Sampson said.

When the July 9, 2011, attack on R.N. happened, there was only one officer, not the required three, watching 32 impulsive and volatile young inmates. The AJC is withholding the name of the victim, R.N., and the perpetrator, R.P., because they were juveniles, both 16, at the time of the attack. The AJC will only identify juvenile criminal suspects when they face adult charges.

Because of the brain injury he suffered in the July 2011 attack, R.N. cannot drive and it’s unlikely he will ever be able to work. His short-term memory problems require him to have someone with him all the time. He has little use of his right arm and leg. Most of the time he needs a walker, cane or a chair to move about. He struggles to put his thoughts into words.

To reach the settlement amount, it was estimated his care will cost as much as $94,000 a year to as little as $61,000 a year.

“It’s like living in hell,” he said in the slow, jerky speech that is now his. “Those guys are crazy.”

The reason his attacker was locked up is not known because those records are not public. But the lawsuit and records from the internal investigation describe the then 16-year-old attacker as a ringleader who stood out as a menace even in a place where there are fights almost daily.

The Department of Juvenile Justice declined to discuss the attack on R.N. or to respond to the allegations made in the lawsuit. But records from the department’s internal investigation tell the much of the story.

R.N. told the AJC he started boosting cars when he was 13. He said he has been locked up more times than he can remember, but only for stealing cars; not for physically hurting anyone.

The last time he was caught, R.N. was sentenced to three years at a YDC and another two years on probation.

The Eastman YDC has a history of violence. One riot was so serious, outside law enforcement was called in.

“You had to fight for everything you had, to fight for food, for clothes,” R.N. said of the violence he encountered in the Eastman YDC, a prison for juveniles. “They don’t have enough guards.”

There are currently 1,580 working in security positions at the seven YDCs and 20 short-term RYDCs but the agency is budgeted for 1,873, a problem the agency has suffered for years.

Eastman YDC officials knew R.P. was dangerous.

Records show that on June 30, 2011, juvenile justice officials discussed concerns raised by an attorney for two other juveniles R.P. had allegedly attacked in the spring.

R.P. went after R.N. four days later.

According to reports, R.P. threw a piece of bread at R.N. and then shoved him. R.N. responded by punching his antagonist. R.P. then knocked him to the ground, and he and another juvenile punched and kicked R.N. until officers broke up the fight.

But after that fight on July 3, 2011, the two 16-year-olds were put back into the same cell block even as officials were discussing whether R.P. needed to be moved to another cell block.

Then on July 9, 2011, according to reports from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the lawsuit, R.P. and three other youths attacked officer Christopher Durham with their fists, his radio, a trash can and a broom that had been left in the cell block two days earlier. Once Durham had been chased out of the cell block, R.P. and the others turned on R.N., kicking, punching and stomping him.

R.N. was unconscious and the remnants of a weapon used on him, a broken broom stick, was on the floor near him by the time other officers reached him, according to the records.

R.N. was airlifted to a Macon hospital where he remained in a “vegetative state” for seven weeks.

And when he was discharged from the hospital, he also was released from DJJ custody.

R.P. was convicted of aggravated assault on R.N. and charges are pending against two others.

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