Georgia considers reforms for youth prisons rife with problems

Director says workers admit sex with wards, low-paid guards often quit

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While New York and California consider dramatic juvenile-justice reform, Georgia is debating how to change an already troubled system now being rocked by the recent killing of a youth in lockup.

Georgia has 26 youth jails and prisons right now, and the state is considering how to enhance security and create more space — perhaps adding another prison — while cutting some rehabilitation staff to save money.   

Lawmakers will consider proposals to cut teachers and community-based rehab staff, while possibly spending $1 million more to organize two “SWAT teams” and nearly $8 million more on a new 80-bed youth prison to increase capacity, according to our colleagues at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange in Georgia.

In a recent briefing, the state’s new juvenile-justice commissioner told Georgia lawmakers that some workers in lockups had admitted sexual contact with wards, and that the turnover rate for guards was increasing, up to 54 percent in 2011.

Youth prison guards make a starting salary of $24,000, and can earn far more if they land a job in a different correctional setting. Guards have also complained about a lack of training and fear on the job, according to reports.

The state is wondering how to organize incarceration differently to segregate older and more violent offenders from other wards. Georgia has gone through cycles of slashing juvenile-justice funding, and now, possibly, restoring it for some targeted programs to reach less serious offenders.