Jon Jefferson: Juvenile justice: fact, fiction and reform
Here's how it works in novels: Someone undergoes a journey or a transformation, eventually emerging somewhere,
somehow different from where he started. Thing is, it's supposed to happen to a character, not to the guy writing the
A year ago, I was seeking ideas for a crime novel, one set in the Florida Panhandle, where I'd recently moved. A
Tallahassee journalist friend asked, "Do you know about the Dozier School for Boys?" I didn't. I was stunned to learn
that the reform school in Marianna had a rap sheet of abuse that was a hundred years long.
Here's how one former school employee described the floggings boys received with a heavy leather strap: "The belt
falls between eight and 100 times. After about the tenth stroke, the seams of the sturdiest blue jeans begin to
separate, and numerous times the boys' skin is broken to the extent that stitches are required." Heartbreakingly,
younger boys — as little as 8 or 10 — got more beatings than older boys.
What a betrayal: boys abused — tortured, really — by the very people supposed to be helping them. I'd found my
crime; I wove a novel, "The Bone Yard," around a fictionalized reform school and the search for clandestine graves
on the school's grounds. Because it's fiction, I could rig the ending: find the bodies, punish the villains, dispense
In real life, it's not so simple. On the grounds of Dozier, 31 makeshift crosses mark the graves of boys who were
"reformed" to death; I'm told another 50 dead boys remain unaccounted for. Aging Dozier alumni claim bodies were
thrown in swamps, or buried in fields and plowed under.
Were they? I suspect so, though we don't know, and unless a serious search is made, we won't know.
But here's something we do know: Locking kids up does dreadful damage. Today, in 2011, kids are still being
harmed at Dozier and other detention facilities. Even if we don't flog them, locking kids up is the surest way to
transform them — to re-form them — into repeat offenders and hard-core criminals. Juvie jails are expensive,
ineffective, and — decades of research show this — hugely counterproductive. Madness.
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Fortunately, our cash-strapped state is now considering Gov. Rick Scott's plan to save $50 million a year by greatly
reducing juvenile detention. Instead of jailing kids for minor offenses, we'd keep them at home and enroll them in
community-based programs where they'd actually get help, education, job skills.
Scott and House Justice Appropriation Committee Chair Rich Glorioso say kids who commit violent crimes could still
go to lockup, but those who commit misdemeanors shouldn't. In a rare display of bipartisan unity, leftie liberals like
the Southern Poverty Law Center and penny-pinchers like Florida TaxWatch agree: The plan would save money and
So it's a slam dunk, right? Wrong. A few private companies that operate juvenile detention facilities are lobbying hard
to derail or limit the reform plan. Why? Because the more "beds" in the system — code for "the more kids behind
bars" — the fatter the contracts. People are fighting to protect jobs, too — jobs for prison staff in hardscrabble
places like Marianna. And then there's the political gamesmanship: to show he's "tough on crime," Senate Justice
Appropriation Committee Chair Mike Fasano has allowed the misdemeanant bill to be so watered down that
hundreds of low-risk kids would still go to prison.
Long after the ink on my crime novel is dry, I'm still haunted by Dozier's victims, the quick and the dead. I'm also
haunted by the grim fact that, every year, we send more than 1,000 Florida kids into the dark tunnel of lockup.
But right now we have a chance to write a new chapter in Florida's story of juvenile justice. This isn't fiction; this is the
real deal, and the lives of thousands of our kids are at stake. Let's write something to be prouder of.