A lot worse.
In early June, the U.S. Justice Department released a report that identified 13 youth detention facilities with the nation’s highest rates of reported sexual assaults on inmates. Four of those are in Georgia, one at nearby as Americus. At the YDC in Paulding County, almost a third of the young inmates held there had reported some form of sexual abuse by fellow inmates or staffers.
What made the story even worse was that many of the investigations of those reports seemed to have been forgotten, shelved or just abandoned. Avery Niles, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, suspended 19 investigators for failing to complete those investigations within 45 days after the initial complaints. Some of the reports were more than a year old, and the only investigator who didn’t have at least one sexual abuse case from 2012 still open was one who had just been hired.
Niles ordered a review of 20 unresolved cases, acknowledging at the time that the number of such cases was probably much higher.
What a gross (if inadvertent) understatement that turns out to have been. Niles said Sunday that DJJ officials have learned that over the last 18 months, there are more than 700 internal investigations still in limbo. Spell it out — seven hundred.
Niles also said that at least 140 of those cases clearly meet federal Justice Department standards for sexual abuse or harassment. Three corrections officers have been fired over substantiated harassment claims. They should, and reportedly will, face criminal prosecution.
It’s hard to decide, in the face of such horrific numbers — each of which represents an already troubled young person — whether the biggest problem in Georgia’s youth detention system is gross, brutal, criminal corruption or just rampant negligence and incompetence. Sounds like some of both.
Nobody should want to see lawbreakers coddled, whether they are veteran career criminals or youthful offenders. But protecting juvenile inmates from sexual abuse and harassment by fellow inmates — or worse, by officers on the state payroll — seems a bare minimum standard of official oversight and simple decency.
Niles said in June that “we’re going to investigate these cases, and where the chips fall, that’s where they’re going to lay.” A few hundred more chips have fallen in the month since he said that.