Youth Prisons Study Report is Denounced

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Critics say task force manipulated results
Adam Gelb, Staff Writer
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
August 14, 1990

State officials manipulated a consultant’s study so that Georgia’s youth prison system appeared more successful than it is,legislators, child advocates and the study’s primary author say. The report, issued July 25, said 33 percent of the juveniles in jail – 206 of 623 – should instead be rehabilitated in community programs.

But some critics and the researchers who conducted the study say the number could be as high as 60 percent. They blamed the discrepancy on the committee that guided the study, the Georgia Risk Assessment Task Force, assembled in large part by Division of Youth Services Director Marjorie Young, who administers the prison system.

“A slightly different mix of people [on the committee] or a slightly different approach to the study would have produced substantially different results,” Jeffrey A. Butts, the primary author, said last week in a letter to several committee members.

The $14,000 study was supposed to help set guidelines for determining which children should be locked up and which should be put in alternative programs, which have proven at least as effective at one-third the cost. Instead, it has heightened the controversy.

“We had yet another example of infighting undermining what was supposed to be an objective, open-minded look at the problem in juvenile corrections,” said Mr. Butts, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Youth Policy. “It’s been the most contentious process we’ve ever engaged in in this kind of study.”

The report is being rewritten and the revised final draft, which will sharply criticize state officials, should be completed within a few days.

Some critics, including juvenile judges and House Speaker Tom Murphy (D-Bremen), accused the task force of being too liberal. Committee member John Zoller, director of court services in the Dekalb County Juvenile Court, complained that a large number of offenders considered high risks were in community programs and not imprisoned.

Others charged that Ms. Young stacked the committee with conservative officials in order to deflate the rate of unnecessary imprisonment.

Children and Youth Committee Chairman Sen. Ed Barker (D-Warner Robins), who asked for the study, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. J. Nathan Deal (D-Gainesville) said they felt the report had been usurped by hard-liners.

Ms. Young insisted the panel was balanced. “We tried really hard to put all the interests there,” she said.

The group consisted of 11 legislators, five juvenile justice officials, including Ms. Young, seven judges, five community program officials, a sheriff, a child advocate, a state Education Department official and a government lobbyist.

The task force ranked various criminal offenses on a scale of seriousness from 1 to 10. Using the rankings and the case histories of the 623 children in the state’s four youth prisons on March 1, researchers concluded that 206 were low-or medium-risk.

But according to the researchers, the committee developed standards far stricter than nationally accepted norms. One quarter of the total, 159, were lumped at the bottom of the high-risk category. Using the more common standards, they said, those prisoners would be released into alternative programs.
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The Atlanta Journal
SECTION: STATE NEWS, PAGE: D/2
Copyright 1990 The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution