Opinion: Spotlighting a broken system

Our newsroom is a year-round operation, working every weekend and holiday. To spread the burden, all of our reporters staff an occasional “weekend rotation,” setting aside their usual duties to cover traffic, weather, crime and breaking news.

Even when they are outside their usual job role, investigative reporters ask tons of questions. That’s why in July of 2018, after investigative reporter Carrie Teegardin was working a weekend rotation shift and asked to follow up on a recent high-profile shooting and arrest, she kept digging.

Washington, D.C., restaurant manager Christian Broder, who had spent his teen years in Atlanta, was leaving a wedding reception at the Capital City Country Club in Brookhaven early the morning of July 8 when he and three other guests called for an Uber. As they were awaiting their ride outside the club, a stolen Dodge Charger pulled up and a youth jumped out, pointed a gun and demanded their belongings. He shot Broder in the stomach.

On July 22, Teegardin published a story about the background of suspect, Jayden Myrick, who had been arrested days earlier. The story was headlined “A youth’s second chance, another family’s tragedy.”

It detailed how Myrick had been arrested at 14 for his role in an armed robbery, tried as an adult as Georgia requires in serious crimes for youth, and sentenced to seven years behind bars and eight years of probation. After more than two years locked up, Myrick’s prison record included gang activity and violence. And without a judge’s intervention, he would have to go to adult prison when he turned 17.

The judge on his case, Fulton Superior Court Judge Doris Downs, was doubtful prison was rehabilitating him. She took a chance – actually two chances – and twice released him to an out-of-prison rehabilitation program that pledged to keep tabs on Myrick and straighten him out.

Six days after Teegardin published that story, she was joined by another of our investigative reporters, Alan Judd, in a follow-up article that revealed how badly that decision by Downs backfired.

The organization, Visions Unlimited, promised education, family counseling and what the program’s founder, Gwendolyn Sands, called “24/7 supervision.” Sands claimed a stellar record of success. It’s unclear why the court had believed and placed such trust in her, because contrary evidence was available, as revealed by Judd and Teegardin.

This all came at a time when Fulton County’s poor record rehabilitating juvenile and adult criminals was in the news (and still is.) It’s been dubbed “catch-and-release” by critics who say judges are too lenient and release juveniles to the same environment where their crimes began, creating a cycle of escalating violence.

Those two stories and other details revealed by Teegardin and Judd troubled me when they were published. Downs seemed well-meaning and cared about turning Myrick around. “I think he has been in prison now for two and a half years and I don’t think it helped him much,” she said, according to a transcript of one hearing. “I haven’t noticed a whole lot of change, and I am hoping the change will occur with this opportunity.”

I was also haunted by Myrick’s mother, who was devastated by the failure of Sands to live up to promises to monitor Myrick. “She stood in court and said she would let him come to her house,” Jauvena Myrick told Teegardin in a brief interview. “Every time I asked for resources or anything, she would say it was going to happen. But it never did.”

Instead, Jauvena Myrick said, “I was in charge of monitoring him – 24 hours. I still had to work and I still have four other kids. It was very hard.”

Sands’ promises and Downs’ hopes never were fulfilled. Christian Broder died 12 days after he was shot, leaving behind a widow and a nine-month old daughter. Myrick was charged with murder.

As I noted, investigative reporters always have more questions. Reporter Judd very much wanted to know about Georgia’s record with juveniles who are charged as adults, as Myrick was.

It was not an easy story to report. The privacy of juveniles means documents are often unavailable or extensively redacted. Myrick’s family and his public defender did not participate. The Fulton Courts did not have a lot to say.

But Judd kept digging and produced a deeply reported series that began on the front page last Sunday. The three-part series reveals a system that Judd described as “at once too lenient and too harsh, barely holding many youths accountable even for repeated offenses before confining them in brutal, chaotic juvenile prisons when their crimes turn more menacing.”

The juvenile justice program is not equipped to deal in any systematic way with issues underlying youth crime, Judd wrote, such as extreme poverty, ineffective or absent parents, untreated mental illness, street gangs and too many available guns.

Teens like Myrick cycle through arrests, court appearances and detention, becoming hardened along the way. This week’s installment shows the ultimate destination: Georgia’s seven juvenile prisons, where fighting and gang activity are rampant and guards who are supposed to reform violent teens instead punish them with more violence.

Judd explained Georgia’s history of “tough medicine” for juveniles, revealing how Georgia’s juvenile justice laws became the strictest in the nation. Georgia is one of only three states that consider 17-year-olds to be adults in the criminal justice system and one of five that require 13-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults for certain offenses. States are dialing back on routine use of shackles and strip searches for juveniles, but Georgia still shackles and still requires every youth in a Georgia “juvenile development center” to be strip searched after pretty much any interaction with the outside world. Think of that – a mom who wants to visit her child knows that every time she does, she causes a search.

Judd revealed a challenging portrait of a system that is not working. More than two decades after Georgia adopted “get tough” juvenile laws under Gov. Zell Miller, juveniles commit the same proportion of violent crime as they did before.

We heard from many readers last week who were troubled by the questions this investigation raises and the challenges for our state. One reader suggested such a deep focus on the system failures along Myrick’s path indicated we viewed him as more of victim than Broder and his family.

I could not disagree more strongly. Broder’s killer bears ultimate responsibility and if Myrick is convicted, as appears likely, he should be punished harshly.

But the juvenile justice system is supposed to intervene, and to prevent our young people from becoming adult criminals, not feed their path. It’s not possible to turn every juvenile around, but Judd demonstrated that Myrick’s path is not unique. It’s our job to question the effectiveness of our institutions and inform our readers and citizens. And when systems and laws aren’t working, it’s our job to call on Georgians to demand change and better results, so that fewer innocent people like Broder are killed.

Shawn McIntosh is editorial director of the AJC.

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