Agency tried to keep pursuit of ‘state secret’ bill quiet

The Department of Juvenile Justice struggled to find “compelling” examples to support the agency’s push in the Legislature to keep reports of problems in its institutions secret without attracting media attention to the effort, according to records.

Emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Georgia Open Records Act describe the behind-the-scenes lobbying for an agency-sponsored bill that would make reports of abuse or wrongdoing and DJJ investigations a “state secret,” a designation that lets agencies decide if information is to be released to the public or not. Records kept by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, for example, are classified “state secrets” and can be released only with the board’s approval.

At least one DJJ official was angry when a reporter wrote about a House committee meeting on Senate Bill 69.

“That SOB may ruin this for us,” DJJ legislative liaison Carol Jackson wrote in a March 21 email about a story posted on an Internet site that reports on ethics in government. “I have been working ON the Chm (chairman) all day. He is slick. If this article gets picked up by major news we may be dead in the water.”

DJJ said in a statement Friday that the intent of the bill had been “misinterpreted … as something other than a serious attempt to protect juvenile witnesses from harm.”

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Currently, DJJ blacks out names, ages and any other information that could identify juveniles in reports and other documents it releases at the conclusion of an investigation and in initial incident reports that are available now even if an investigation is pending.

In seeking the bill, the agency said it was concerned with keeping information in the initial incident reports secret.

The bill, however, says DJJ reports on problems in the lockups are never to be made public unless the department agrees to release the information. Currently, those records are public only after all investigations are closed.

The Senate unanimously approved SB 69 on Feb. 20, and it remains in a House committee and could be taken up next year. Though investigations of disturbances and reports of violence in their lockups or allegations of wrongdoing or abuse by the staff would be a “state secret,” the agency would still be required to produce an annual summary of “the number of reports of abuse or wrongdoing received and the general nature of such reports” but without specifics, according to SB 69.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, wrote the committee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, there were good reasons for withholding the names of juveniles but making all the other information state secrets is a bad idea.

“Closing off the information from public consumption and review only makes the problems of the juveniles and children worse,” Manheimer said. “We can’t fix the problem if we don’t know about it.”

Discussions in emails began last November after the AJC reported short staffing and gangs were to blame for a riot last August at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Center, a short-term lockup much like an adult jail.

“They got the info under open records,” Jackson, the DJJ legislative liaison, wrote in an email to the agency’s attorney. “The feel (sic) is it has put the guards at risk because they used his name. We don’t want our investigative and intel (intelligence) info subject to open records.”

In a March 18 email, a legislative aide told Jackson that Weldon wanted her to have for an upcoming committee meeting “some compelling information about this bill. Why it is needed, what problems it addresses and the reason for the language. He wants evidence on why this bill will help.”

Sarah Draper, deputy commissioner of secure facilities, wrote Jackson on March 19. “I don’t know if I will have ‘compelling’ evidence that we need this bill. I’m searching articles and going with the gang involvement theory.”

DJJ said she wanted to make her case using specific examples because using only data would not provide a complete picture of why it is needed.

“DJJ needed a bill that would protect juvenile witnesses who would be hurt or endangered if the population in lockup learned some youth were passing along key information to our internal affairs investigators and corrections officers who collect intelligence information,” Commissioner Avery Niles said in a statement issued when the bill was introduced.

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