My friend and former Cobb County district attorney Joyette Holmes was recently sworn in by Gov. Brian Kemp as a member of the State Board of Juvenile Justice, representing the 11th Congressional District. It is the seat I have held for the past 12 years. It could not be in better hands.
I have been a member of the State Ethics Commission and the Governor’s Education Reform Commission but nothing tops my time on the Board of Juvenile Justice. I have watched some of the most dedicated men and women you can imagine spend their days and nights trying to salvage the lives of young people who have made some bad choices, in hopes of seeing them rehabilitated and becoming productive citizens. It is not an easy task.
How I got the opportunity to serve on the board goes back to Gov. Nathan Deal’s early days in office. As I had done with a couple of his predecessors, I made my usual snarky and tongue-in-cheek remarks in this space about not being included on the transition teams set up to staff the new governor’s offices. That included Gov Deal. His predecessors ignored me, which was expected but which gave me the opportunity to needle them when the inevitable blip occurred. (“I told you that you should have listened to me. Now look at the mess you are in.”) His predecessors ignored that, too.
As for Gov Deal, after I had worked his staff over on one occasion – okay, maybe several occasions – I was in a meeting at a Methodist conference when a wide-eyed secretary came into the room to tell me that the governor himself was on the phone asking to speak to me. Uh. Oh. I guess I went too far this time. When I got on the line and before he could say anything, I told the governor I was just taking a little jab at one of his people and meant no harm and hoped no one took it personally. He had no idea what I was talking about. I guess he had not read the column and no one had mentioned it to him. So much for the power of the press.
Instead, he was inviting me to become a member of the board of the Department of Juvenile Justice. This was no small thing. Criminal justice reform was Nathan Deal’s passion. The measures championed by the governor have fundamentally changed the way the criminal justice system in Georgia functions, saved taxpayers an enormous amount of money and have made the state a leader in criminal justice reform. And that includes juvenile justice.
The State Department of Juvenile Justice annually supervises roughly 10,000 young offenders up to the age of 21 that are charged with felonies or misdemeanors. While these young people are held accountable for their actions, there is a concomitant effort to turn their lives around by providing them a variety of support systems, including a chance to get quality education.
The department has its own school, the Georgia Preparatory Academy, a fully-accredited public school system with its own faculty and its own Board of Education.
On the DJJ board with me were district attorneys, judges, law enforcement officials and current and past elected officials. The board’s job is to provide advice and counsel to Comm. Tyrone Oliver and his staff who in turn supervise some 3,000-plus employees, including the correctional officers who are on the front lines.
Many of the kids come into the system from unstable family situations where there are no good role models and gangs become their family. Almost all of them have the talent, intelligence and ability to do better. The challenge is to convince them there is a better way. Sadly, some don’t take that opportunity and end up right back in juvenile facilities and then on to the adult prison.
And then there are those who see the opportunity and make the most of it. To see young people “get it” and receive their high school diplomas or GED and develop a trade or go on to pursue a college education makes it all worthwhile.
Serving on the Board of Juvenile Justice has been an extraordinary and eye-opening experience for me. I don’t know how much I helped the good people at DJJ but I came to appreciate a lot of dedicated state employees who are committed to rescuing young lives before they are lost forever. We don’t come close to paying them what they are worth but, thank God, they do it anyway.
There is no question that Joyette Holmes will bring a new and fresh perspective to the Juvenile Justice board and will be a great asset. In the meantime, thank you, Gov. Deal for 12 memorable years. I’m still not sure why you called me that day, but I am glad you did.