The Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office spends about $200,000 a year transporting local juvenile defendants to and from youth detention centers across the state. That’s according to Maj. Mike Massey, who oversees courts for the sheriff’s office.
When the youths are first arrested, they are transported by Columbus police officers to facilities as far as Crisp County, Macon and Augusta, because there is no room at the local Aaron Cohn Regional Youth Detention Center, Massey explained. And then two sheriff’s deputies are assigned to pick up the juveniles the next day, bring them to Columbus for preliminary hearings, and then transport them back. One juvenile was transported to Columbus for a preliminary hearing as recently as Friday, Massey said.
“So far for the year, we’ve transported 292 juveniles,” he said. “And all of those we have to go out of town to pick up, because the RYDC here in Columbus is full. It’s not just a Columbus epidemic; it’s throughout the state of Georgia.”
But while investigating the issue, the Ledger-Enquirer discovered a disconnect between state and local law enforcement officials about beds available at the Aaron Cohn RYDC which serves 13 counties.
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While administrators at the Sheriff’s Office and the Columbus Police Department say they’ve been told the center is full, officials with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice say that’s not the case.
Jim Shuler, a spokesman from the DJJ’s Office of Communications, responded to Ledger-Enquirer questions via an email titled “Rumors of DJJ Overcrowding Dispelled.” He went on to explain the situation as follows:
“Is there a current overcrowding problem at DJJ’s Aaron Cohn RYDC serving Muscogee County? NO. Here’s why: 1. The capacity of the Aaron Cohn RYDC is 64 beds. 2. The population at the Aaron Cohn RYDC TODAY (04-20-17) is 52. Therefore, the facility is at 81% capacity.”
He said juvenile offenders are not being transported to other facilities because of overcrowding, but because of their individual needs; and there’s no problem statewide.
“The decision to send a youth to a long-term YDC is based on the youth’s needs and offense(s),” Shuler wrote in the email. “Committed youth are placed at the most appropriate YDC that can meet those needs. For example, youth with substance abuse problems or behavioral health issues may be sent from Columbus to the YDC in Augusta for treatment in specialized DJJ programs. These transports, when necessary, are based on providing appropriate interventions for DJJ youth as mandated by the courts, not as a coping measure for juvenile overcrowding as falsely rumored.”
In a phone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Shuler said the number of juveniles detained at youth detention centers has declined due to the Justice Reform Act, passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013.
But Massey says the Sheriff’s Office has been told that there’s no more space at the local RYDC. He said youths are diverted to the out-of-town facilities at the time of arrest and before it’s even determined what type of program is needed.
He said juvenile crimes have increased in Columbus in recent years. And when one considers the cost for fuel and the salaries for officers who transport the youths and reserve officers brought in for court security in their absence, the expenses add up.
“We’re averaging over 32 trips a month, sometimes it’s 50,” he said. “A normal working month is 20 days. So, as you can see, we’re doing sometimes two and three a day. It takes two officers to do this transport.”
The Sheriff’s Office is pursuing the option of having the preliminary hearings done by video conferencing, which would save the department travel expenses, Massey said. But that wouldn’t address the trips that Columbus police officers have to make on a regular basis.
Maj. J.D. Hawk of the Columbus Police Department said the local RYDC serves multiple counties and it’s his understanding that a certain number of beds are reserved for each one.
“We could pick up somebody and all the beds allotted for Muscogee County are full, which means that we have to take them someplace else,” Hawk said. “... We have contacted the Department of Juvenile Justice asking why there are beds vacant there and we can’t put people in them and we have to go all over the state.”
In response to questions based on that information, Shuler sent another email to the Ledger-Enquirer stating that the DJJ “does not reserve a specific bed count for any county.”
“DJJ does not have a reserved bed count (or limitation) for Muscogee County,” he said. “Local law enforcement is required by Georgia statute to transport all pre-adjudicated youth to the RYDC for intake (time of arrest), and to all court proceedings while youth are placed in secure detention.
“According to DJJ juvenile tracking records, from January 1, 2017 through April 21, 2017; the Aaron Cohn RYDC has had 141 ‘arrivals’ (intakes),” he wrote. “These arrivals are not limited to intakes from Muscogee County alone. Aaron Cohn RYDC serves a total of 13 Georgia counties, including arrivals from Chattahoochee, Harris, Marion, Macon, Meriwether, Schley, Stewart, Talbot, Taylor, Troup, Pike and Webster counties.”
Shuler said there are 26 DJJ secure facilities strategically positioned throughout the state to serve citizens in 159 counties.
“Unfortunately, this means not every Georgia law enforcement agency will have a DJJ secure facility within its own jurisdiction,” he said. “Therefore at times, transportation of pre-adjudicated youth offenders outside county lines may become a local law enforcement and taxpayer responsibility.
“This makes it all the more important that our communities pursue the innovative new concepts provided by Georgia’s Juvenile Justice Reform Laws to maximize the use of other juvenile justice alternatives and treatments,” he said, “and minimize the number of young offenders who must be taken into the care and custody of Georgia’s secure detention facilities.”
Muscogee County Juvenile Court Judge Warner Kennon said there are 48 beds for males and 16 beds for females at the local RYDC.
“However, if there are only two females and all male beds are full, any males from Muscogee must be placed outside of the catchment area,” he explained in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer.
Kennon said the juvenile court has regular detention meetings to discuss each Muscogee County youth at the Aaron Cohn RYDC. At the last meeting held on March 10, there were 58 youths at the facility, and 40 were from Muscogee County, he said. Of those, 12 youths were designated felons awaiting placement at a secure facility.
On Friday, Sheriff’s deputies drove about 70 miles to pick up a Muscogee County juvenile detained in Terrell County, he said. They were scheduled to transport the youth back to the facility after the hearing, according to Massey.
“Due to the local RYDC being full, as recently as Wednesday, a youth was detained due to a delinquent act and was unable to be transported to the local RYDC and therefore, had to be transported to Terrell RYDC,” the judge wrote in the email Friday afternoon. “The Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department is currently in route to Terrell RYDC to transport that youth to court for a 2:00 hearing.”