ATLANTA (AP) -- When five young men slipped out of a juvenile detention center a month and a half ago in Augusta, stealing a car and leading police on a chase, it was just the latest in a string of setbacks for officials trying to turn around Georgia's system for young criminals.
It came the same day an 18-year-old was sentenced to 17 years in jail after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the November 2011 death of Jade Holder, who was severely beaten in his room at the same facility. Last weekend, a fight there sent a 15-year-old inmate to the hospital for several days.
While the Augusta detention center has had its share of high-profile trouble in recent years, it's not alone. Other facilities have seen brawls, gang activity and misconduct by corrections officers, including inappropriate relationships with residents and distribution of contraband.
The fifth new commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice since 2010, former Hall County Warden Avery Niles, has pledged to correct existing problems and strengthen safety and security practices. While the frequent turnover at the top inevitably causes some instability, that's not the root of the department's problems, observers say.
"I think it has more to do with budget cuts and the constraints they've been under in terms of funding than it does with the leadership," said Kirsten Widner, policy and advocacy director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.
Among other difficulties, tight budgets make it hard to attract and train employees qualified to deal with young offenders who often have violent tendencies. The department's operating budget fell from nearly $322 million in fiscal year 2008 to nearly $286 million in fiscal year 2012, a decrease of about 11 percent. It did rise to just over $300 million for the 2013 fiscal year, but that's stretched thin covering a staff of more than 4,000 employees statewide, a network of short- and longer-term juvenile detention centers, as well as community-based programs and supervision for low-risk offenders.
The Augusta Youth Development Campus has grabbed the most negative headlines over the past year or so. Recently departed Commissioner Gale Buckner conducted a series of inspections there in the months after Holder's death that led to the firing or resignation of 11 people, including the director. But an internal audit in August still found numerous "deficiencies," including a lack of qualified staff, improper admission procedures and a general lack of oversight, The Augusta Chronicle reported. Niles, on the job since Nov. 1, called the audit's findings "unacceptable."
The Juvenile Justice Department has said the Augusta facility had already begun correcting some of the problems identified in the report before the October escape. And a new director, expected to be named this month, will continue to focus on security improvements.
An internal investigation into an August fight at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Center cited short staffing and a lack of trust between juvenile correctional officers, as well as a growing cellblock gang, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Three officers were hurt and 10 teens suffered minor injuries in the brawl, which was the third violent outbreak at the facility in just over a year.
Buckner, who was commissioner from November 2011 through Oct. 31, said one of the greatest challenges for her successor will likely be recruiting and retaining competent juvenile corrections officers.
"You're dealing with youth in those facilities who have exhibited violence at one time or another," she said. "So when you try to bring someone into that environment, you need people who are competent and capable and want to stay with you and make a career out of juvenile justice. It's hard to do that when you're bringing people in at $24,000 a year."
Niles left his post as warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution to become juvenile justice Commissioner. He previously worked for the Hall County Sheriff's Office for 23 years, focusing on juvenile cases early in his career.
He spent his first month on the job studying the budget, getting to know his staff at headquarters and visiting secure facilities around the state. Recruitment is a top priority, he said, and he wants to hire military veterans whose focus on structure could be a stabilizing force for youths in custody.
"They need to have a person that can provide that guidance and that supervision like our military people have been exposed to," Niles said.
Despite its problems, Georgia's juvenile justice system is in better shape than it was a decade ago. The department was under federal oversight for 11 years after the U.S. Justice Department investigated reports of overcrowding and abuse. It was released from that oversight in May 2009, at which time federal officials found overcrowding was eliminated and training improved. Meanwhile, the department's mental health and medical care were considered national models.
Though budget cuts have caused some backsliding, former Commissioner Albert Murray, who led the department from 2004 to 2010 and was its longest-serving leader, said he's spoken to Niles and is convinced he'll stick around for a while and bring about improvements.
"Avery comes to the position, I believe, with a good set of skills," Murray said. "He seems to have the interest of the juveniles and the staff at heart, so there's every reason to believe he will be a successful leader."
And Niles may have some help from the Legislature. A special committee is set to finalize recommendations this month for overhauling the juvenile justice system. Much of the conversation at meetings this fall focused on finding ways to keep more low-risk offenders in the community rather than locking them up. That could save a lot of money and could improve the environment in the secure facilities, experts have said.
"Really focusing the use of those facilities on the kids who need them the most would make a huge difference because then the money could be redirected to meet the needs of those kids who are in the facilities, rather than just trying to manage a population that doesn't necessarily need to be there," Emory's Widner said.