Gold Dome Report — Budget Hearings, Day 2

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP

Amidst a transition of power in our nation's Capital, the Georgia General Assembly continued its review of Governor Kemp’s budget recommendations for FY 2021 Amended and FY 2022. The focus for much of the day was on safety for our state and the costs to provide such safety, including the fiscal needs of the Departments of Corrections, Juvenile Justice, and Public Safety, as well as the state’s courts. Lawmakers continue to delve into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of the virus on Georgia’s agencies. Appropriations Committee Chairmen Blake Tillery (R-Vidalia) and Terry England (R-Auburn) oversaw the discussions and questioned department heads regarding the various changes and priorities. More on these discussions in today’s #GoldDomeReport.

In today’s Report:

  • IN DEPTH: Criminal Justice & Judicial Agency Presentations

IN DEPTH: Criminal Justice & Judicial Agency Presentations

Department of Corrections
Department of Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward indicated that his agency had worked diligently to address potential outbreaks of COVID-19. The Department has deployed Binax rapid tests and put processes into place for symptomatic and asymptomatic offenders, screening hospital pre-procedure and hospital pre-outside consult visits. Commissioner Ward indicated that this is to avoid transports of COVID positive offenders as well as notify the receiving provider if the individual is negative. Additionally, the Department has established a process for vaccinating individuals and has entered into Phase 1 for the offenders who are over the age of 65 — they have identified 1,198 offenders who are this age and have also pre-identified individuals who have chronic conditions and are to be provided vaccine priority according to CDC and Public Health guidance.

Commissioner Ward also talked about his agency’s success in educating offenders. In FY 2021, the Department had 558 GED graduates and another 10,642 completed career and technical certifications. An additional 25 completed their high school diplomas. In preparation for releasing offenders, in FY 2021 year to date, 29,355 have received driver’s licenses and/or state identifications. Three of the Department’s facilities are dedicated to evidence-based programming: Lee State Prison, Hancock State Prison and Metro Re-entry Facility.

The Department has experienced added healthcare costs this year, and these costs have consistently increased over the last five years. In an effort to address the rising costs, the Department hired a consultant to look further at the costs and needs. It is in the process of re-bidding its pharmacy services and has been using 340B pharmacy provisions in an effort to trim costs, and it does use generic drugs. The actual physical health services are managed by ASMP but a new request for proposal has been issued earlier this month for the goal of transition by September 2021 (overseeing hospital and other healthcare providers). Mental health needs continue for the Department and it is working to expand access to mental health services across its secure facilities and reduce offender transportation and movement. Additionally, it is seeking to improve response to mental health crises by utilizing programs and services on site. The Department has also required 24-hour mandatory mental health training for all facility staff. Mental health population for the Department in FY 2020 was 10,389. Mental health expansions are occurring with 75 added beds in Long and Wilcox facilities (these follow added expansions in a number of other facilities across the state in FY 2020.

Commissioner Ward noted that use of technology had benefited the Department, particularly with virtual court hearings. He accented the use of these in arraignments, habeas, and plea/sentencing in particular. There are future technology updates planned including a pilot for digitizing hand-written information from traditional logbooks, count sheets and other reports. He also mentioned added technology to screen folks for contraband, which continues to plague the facilities. Many of Georgia’s prisons are old — the lifespan of a facility though is generally around 30 years. Georgia has three facilities in use which are more than 70 years old.

In total, the recommendation request for FY 2021 is $3.3 million — included in that is the 10 percent salary increase for staff. He noted that the beginning pay for a correctional officer would be increased to $30,730. There are also bond funds included in the FY 2022 proposal of more than $45.5 million to help with emergency repairs, security upgrades and overall improvements.

Department of Juvenile Justice
Commissioner Tyrone Oliver presented his budget for the Department of Juvenile Justice. Oliver noted that the DJJ has 25 secure facilities across Georgia and an additional 90 community service programs. It also operates the state’s 181st school district.

In his COVID-19 update, he noted that 413 staff had tested positive with 321 who have recovered; 121 youth have tested positive and out of those 108 have recovered and an additional 13 are positive now. The Department is also using Binax tests for staff and youth.

In FY 2021, Commissioner Oliver noted the 10 pay percent increase for officers at a cost of $2.5 million which will be paid for with 420 vacant positions statewide. Oliver noted that The Department has been looking at the staff and culture of the Department. Two-thirds of the staff who were surveyed reported that the number one issue for them was pay and benefits and behind that was stress Thus, the pay increase will hopefully help with these concerns. The Department has also implemented leadership/supervisor managerial training.

For FY 2022, The Department has $35 million included for bonds. In this funding, it includes funds for a 56 housing unit in Muscogee County. At that facility presently, there is a cottage-style environment. This funding will put individuals into one unit. Also, bond funds include contraband detection equipment, including nine body scanners.

Department of Public Safety
The FY 2021 budget for the Department of Public Safety includes funding for 321 vehicles, and in FY 2022, there is funding for a 100 person trooper school (the goal is to have 75 of those complete the training). It was noted that the current trooper school had been “paused” due to an outbreak of COVID-19. The Department has also included a $775,000 upgrade for its helicopters for FLIR which will help locate individuals at night. Funding is also in the budget for $56 million new headquarters (the project is already underway). Turner Construction is overseeing this effort which is anticipated to take 18-20 months for completion. Finally, the Department talked about a need for $655,000 for technology upgrades - this funding will fund mobile and stationary towers to improve communications particularly in middle and southwest portions of the state.

Supreme Court
Chief Justice Harold Melton spoke to the Committees this morning, explaining how the courts have retooled in the wake of the pandemic and existing under the various Judicial Emergency Orders issued since March. He accented the work of the mental health courts which has proceeded during the crisis. Chief Justice Melton also stated that the Judicial Council, which normally meets four times annually, had held 30 meetings this year and also held a number of “town hall” meetings with superior and state court judges in addition to the superior court clerks. The courts are focused on re-initiating all services, not just jury trials, which had resumed in October only to be halted again in December with the spike of COVID-19 cases with a seven day rolling average of 7,200. He noted that closures of the courts to trials also resulted in many cases being resolved on the courthouse steps. There are, however, no backlog of cases with the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals; they have been conducting oral arguments via video. Further, he noted that new case filings were down 14 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Supreme Court has asked for savings restoration in funds which were cut from the departure of Justice Blackwell and have asked for funds to address one new justice and consideration of the court’s IT budget. In FY 2022, there is another request for IT funding in the amount of $97,500 so as to replace server nodes and streaming equipment. There is also a request for more than $220,000 so as to pay membership dues for the National Center for State Courts (this is a requirement and based on population — but the organization has worked with Georgia and funding is with the 11 percent discount).

Judicial Council
Supreme Court Justice Mike Boggs presented for the Judicial Council which oversees the AOC, municipal and magistrate courts, accountability courts, JQC and other entities. In the FY 2021 budget, the Council has a request for $88,654 for IT support position so as to help with virtual meeting issues (Boggs noted a 650 percent increase in virtual meetings). Further, he accented a request for $75,000 for the Georgia Court Registry to help track continuing education credits, court reporters, and other matters. In FY 2022, he highlighted the need for added funding for the domestic violence grant which was originally funded in 1999 but last year only had $1.5 million in funding; his desire is to see that funding be reinstated to $2.5 million and asked for an incremental adjustment to work towards achieving that goal. The grant actually saves the state approximately $15 million. He also mentioned the AOC and the kinship care initiative which also saved the state $4.2 million; this grant helps families with legal custody of children and prevents the children from ending up in foster care. The kinship care program was funded at $475,000 but suffered a $249,000 cut; the request was for $100,000 for this effort. Among other items accented by Justice Boggs was the child support collaborative and the request for $21,600 so that Georgia could update its child support guidelines (he noted that this is a required item and needs a 36 percent state fund match).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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