The Blueprint Commission of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice presented its findings yesterday in a much-anticipated report, “Getting Smart About Juvenile Justice in Florida.” The report follows a series of statewide hearings and reflects the recommendations of the twenty-five-member commission that was tasked last summer with charting a new course for the state’s troubled system.
“As a commission, we believe that Florida must get smart about its response to and treatment of at-risk youth,” Blueprint chairman Frank Brogan, who is also the president of Florida Atlantic University, writes in his introductory letter. “We must move toward a more balanced system, one that proactively seeks to prevent juvenile delinquency, that redirects those youth at risk of delinquency, that provides more appropriate, less restrictive sanctions for low-risk and misdemeanant youth offenders, that focuses on rehabilitation, and that reserves serious sanctions for violent and habitual offenders.”
The “Get Smart” message carries a clear critique of the “Get Tough” approach that has characterized Florida’s juvenile justice system for too long. It’s the “get tough” mentality, after all, that has brought the state to its current crisis, with an annual estimate of 91,000 youth referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice and an annual cost of $42,606 for each offender sent to the state’s residential and correctional facilities. Nearly half of those held in detention centers in 2007 had committed nothing worse than misdemeanors.
“If nothing changes,” the report states–that is, if the rates of referral and incarceration remain the same despite a steady decline in overall juvenile crime–“Florida will run out of room in its juvenile commitment programs in five years. It will run out of room in its secure detention facilities in 10 years. And the population will continue to grow.”
The report noted that communities have a limited capacity to handle at-risk youth, a problem that teams up with a failed zero-tolerance policy in the schools to produce an overemphasis on detention. (Florida’s incarceration rate for young offenders exceeds national averages.) It also identified an overrepresentation of minority youth and a growing population of girls in detention (female juvenile offenders in Florida are detained at almost twice the national rate); unmet mental health needs; poorly trained, underpaid staff; and a high turnover rate among employees.
The Commission identified seven “guiding principles” as it developed its recommendations for lawmakers. Those principles include:
• Strengthening youth, families and communities through effective prevention and intervention services
• Reforming detention through diversion and alternatives to secure detention while ensuring public safety
• Improving health and wellness for youth in the JJ system
• Ensuring a fair and balanced approach for addressing the needs of all youth
• Transitioning from large institutional care to smaller, community-based residential programs
• Ensuring a stable and professional workforce
• Ensuring an effective and accountable JJ system
The fifty-two recommendations that emerged from these guiding principles are detailed in the 150-page report. It’s a wonk’s paradise in there, but you can get the gist by reading through the executive summary and the introduction and skimming through the sections, each of which concludes with a helpful “key findings” summary. Notable, to me, is the Commission’s emphasis on developing a continuum of services, including prevention programs and alternatives to incarceration at the local level for at-risk youth and low-level offenders, and on building a Missouri-like network of small, secure facilities “that provide good educational and skill-building programs, and that best prepare youth for return to their communities.”
Successful implementation of this common-sense plan will depend, of course, on an influx of cash and sustained leadership. Early forecasts, sorry to say, are not sunny. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who held a news conference at the State Capitol yesterday after receiving the Commission’s report, announced that Governor Charlie Crist will recommend a pittance of $4.6 million to implement the commission’s recommendations. And according to the Palm Beach Post, the governor’s budget proposal, submitted last week, includes an $18 million cut in funds for the Department of Juvenile Justice. Meanwhile, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walt McNeil, who would oversee the implementation of the reform plan, is moving to the adult side to head up the state’s Department of Corrections this month. The opening presents an opportunity to bring in a seasoned reformer who shares the Commission’s vision and has the chops to make it real. But for the short term, no one is at the helm.
Last year Florida legislators asked for a how-to guide to fixing the state’s broken juvenile justice system. They have now received a very good one. Whether the experts will be given the tools they’ll need to get to work remains an open question.