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Dick Yarbrough: Justice reform makes strides, despite sheriff's slam

I try to live my life by two simple rules: One, never eat soup with a fork, and two, try not to disagree with the county sheriff. The first one will stain your tie something awful. The latter will likely get you in a heap of trouble if you roll through their county acting like you own the place.

I am doing OK with the soup thing, but it looks like I am going to have a bit of a problem adhering to rule No.  2.

Sheriff Howard Sills of Putnam County recently referred to Gov. Nathan Deal as Lucifer, as in the devil. The sheriff doesn’t like the governor’s efforts in criminal justice reform, telling his colleagues, “This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined.”

From where I sit, I think the governor has done — to trade on the Lucifer analogy — a helluva job. And I sit as a member of the board of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice. Seated around me are a district attorney, several law enforcement officials, a retired prison warden, child advocates, three judges and some of the most dedicated employees on God’s green Earth. All under the leadership of a commissioner, Avery D. Niles, who approaches his job with the zeal of an evangelist. 

The Department of Juvenile Justice deals with young offenders charged with felonies or misdemeanors up to  age 21. The department holds these young people accountable for their actions, but also works to turn their lives around by providing them a variety of support systems, including a chance to get quality education.

We — meaning the department — have our own school, the Georgia Preparatory Academy, a fully accredited facility with its own faculty and its own Board of Education on which I proudly sit as a member. Last year, GPA enrolled more than 6,300 juvenile offenders, most of whom are two to three years behind their peers in academic achievement.

A couple of days after Sills launched his broadside, I sat in a board meeting and saw the positive side of criminal justice reform. Appearing before us were three young people who have taken advantage of the second chance they have been given and as sure as I am of anything, are going to become good productive citizens in our society, thanks to dedicated staff members working within an enlightened juvenile justice system focused on reclamation and rehabilitation.

Camillia Thompson, an 11th-grader, and Keywanna Kaigler, a ninth-grader, attend the Bibb County Educational Transitional Center. The ETC, one of three in the state, serves students who have been released from juvenile facilities but are still under community supervision. 

They were chosen to be pages at the Capitol for a day by House Minority Leader Rep. Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville. It was the first time young people from the Georgia Juvenile Justice system or from any juvenile system in the nation had received such recognition. Kudos to Trammell.

Camillia, who plans to become a nurse practitioner, called the experience an “eye-opener” and said, “We were welcomed with open arms by everyone we worked with that day. The experience made me feel valued and important.”

Keywanna aspires to become a doctor. She told the board, “There was never a dull moment throughout the session. The whole experience was exceptional. It inspired me to fight for the things I believe in and make positive changes in the world I live in.”

Then came Armoni Boyd-Strozier, a 20-year-old from Fayetteville who is currently in his fifth semester at Fort Valley State, thanks to a program called eCore, which allows DJJ graduates to take online college-level courses accepted by all colleges in the University System of Georgia. He talked about his plans to major in business administration and complete his MBA and work in artist management. Do not bet against this young man. He is the real deal.

Niles says, “These three youths are a testament as to why we cannot give up on the youth in our system because when we set expectations, given the right tools and support many of our youth can and will rise to the occasion.”

I respect Sills’ right to object to Deal’s criminal justice reform efforts, but I must play the devil’s advocate here (that Lucifer thing again.) From where I sit and from what I saw last week, I am pleased to say that things are going exceedingly well in that area. Thank heaven.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and at Contact him by email; at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139; via his website; or on Facebook.

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