Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice: Leadership instability behind backlog

High turnover at the top of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice is being blamed for some 700 backlogged investigations of complaints at some of the 27 institutions for young offenders.

Each time the commissioner, the No. 2 person or the head of investigations would change, priorities would change, said Assistant Commissioner Mark Sexton.

In following up on a federal report in June that alleged a high level of sexual contact between teenagers and staff at some Georgia juvenile facilities, state investigators came in to review hundreds of DJJ open cases, some more than 18 months old.

Sexton told the DJJ board on Thursday that the follow-up review had uncovered several reasons why such a large number of cases had stacked up. But the primary reason, he said, was the “multiple leadership changes” that brought “differences in prioritization.”

At some point, the importance of meeting deadlines called for in the agency’s rules — such as closing cases within 45 days — had been pushed aside, Sexton said.

“We’ve had significant leadership changes in this organization,” he said, listing the jobs of commissioner, assistant commissioner and head of investigations.

“We need to make sure we have consistency of guidance for the investigations unit,” Sexton said. “Consistency, we believe, will go a long way.”

In mid-June, as a result of the controversy over open cases and reports of sexual contact between juveniles and staff, the DJJ suspended with pay 19 members of its investigative unit plus the former head of the group.

Sexton said the entire investigative unit would be getting special training next week and a re-education on the agency’s policies.

In little more than five years, Georgia has had five DJJ commissioners and five different people in the No. 2 job.

Last spring, before the damning report from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Georgia DJJ hired a new chief of investigations, but it could not provide a list of how many people have been in that job in recent years.

Commissioner Avery Niles, who oversees about 4,000 employees and an agency that holds about 1,800 juvenile offenders, said he could not attest to what happened at the DJJ before he took the helm. But he said he hopes to move beyond the scandals.

Niles received praise from the governor’s office on Thursday. “Under Commissioner Niles we’ve seen significant progress on training and process,” said a spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, who put Niles in the job.

“Throughout the tenure of any DJJ commissioner, the safety of detainees and staff tops the priority list,” the Deal spokesman said.

The longest-serving DJJ commissioner was Albert Murray, who was in charge for six and a half years.

When Murray resigned in May 2010 to go to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, he was succeeded by Garland Hunt, who became the first in a series of DJJ commissioners to stay in the job for a year or less.

In January 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal, just taking office, replaced Hunt with Amy Howell, the first female DJJ commissioner.

Howell held the position until November 2011, when she was named general counsel for the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities.

The next commissioner was Gale Buckner, who stayed a year until she was named chief magistrate in Murray County, her home.

Then came Niles, who at the time of his appointment in November 2012 was a member of the DJJ board and the warden at Hall County’s jail.