Juvenile Justice Secretary favors therapeutic approach
By Tonya Alanez, Tallahassee Bureau
11:09 p.m. EST, March 1, 2011
— The state's new head of juvenile justice wants to duplicate across the state the results she helped bring about in
Miami-Dade County, where juvenile arrests were cut in half and re-arrests plummeted.
Over 14 years, Wansley Walters either served as director of the county's Juvenile Services Department or headed
up an evolving chain of county and police juvenile departments, where she oversaw an array of reforms and the
creation of an innovative program that steers youths into counseling, treatment and community programs rather
than arrest after a first-time misdemeanor offense.
"I believe we can have a system that protects public safety but also protects these children's futures and their
spirits," Walters, the first woman to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice, said in an interview.
The idea is to quickly identify the behaviors that are getting kids into trouble, address them and treat them by
involving family, schools and the community. Not saddling kids with arrest records early on will hopefully keep them
out of jails and prisons in the long run, said Walter, 57.
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Since its inception in 2007, 8,000 youths — most of them minorities — have participated in the civil-citation program
in Miami-Dade County.
In a 10-year period beginning in 1998, the civil citation program and other reforms led to a 51 percent reduction of
juvenile arrests and decrease of 66 percent in juvenile detention.
But most telling, Walters says, was the 80 percent drop in re-arrests.
With an immediate per-child cost saving of $5,000 by avoiding arrests, net savings for Miami-Dade County has been
calculated at $20.2 million a year. That program was lauded by the White House two years ago.
Violent juvenile offenders, she says, still would be dealt with firmly.
Roy Miller, president of The Children's Campaign, a Tallahassee-based child-advocacy and watchdog organization,
said that despite his displeasure with Gov. Rick Scott's cuts of somewhere around $2 billion to K-12 public
education, he is delighted by Walters' appointment and what it means for children.
"She brings with her a vision of reform that we support," Miller said. "I would call it progressive. I'd go that far."
When Scott, a Republican, tapped Walters, a Democrat, to lead the agency, he told her he wanted to "make it the
best juvenile justice system in the United States." The agency in 2009-10 supervised 75,382 juveniles either in
secure lock-up or residential facilities, on probation or in prevention programs for high-risk offenders.
She's up for the challenge, she says, but "you cannot do that by thinking that you have to lock up every child that
gets in trouble."
For too long, Walters says, the department has taken a correctional "tough love" approach rather than function as a
therapeutic, prevention center.
A Georgia native who grew up in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, Walters earned a degree in speech communications
from the University of South Florida. She moved to Miami in 1978, where she spent nearly 20 years working in
administrative positions for the county and the Miami-Dade Police Department. In 1997, she became director of the
department's juvenile assessment center, which in 2005 evolved into the juvenile services department.
In Broward County, 15 juvenile diversion programs are in place and the Sheriff's Office and various police agencies
operate their own, varied forms of civil citation programs.
The effect is largely positive, said prosecutor Maria Schneider, head of the juvenile division for the Broward State
"It's a very holistic approach," Schneider said, noting that the youths discuss the impact of their behavior not only on
the victims, but their families and communities. "I think that that is very important to help a kid not just realize the
error of their ways right now, but to avoid committing similar acts in the future."
But, Schneider added: "Unfortunately we will always need detention centers for some youth."
"Many of the things I'm talking about are not applicable to dangerous felons," Walters said. "We are not willing to
coddle any offender who is serious and dangerous. But we don't need to throw the rest of the kids under the bus
trying to get to those."
Walters says she expects some push back from law enforcement and state attorneys. But the push to reduce the
chances of juveniles ending up in prison as adults falls right in line with the philosophy of Ed Buss, Scott's newly
appointed Department of Corrections secretary.
"We should always try to keep the juveniles closer to their communities, closer to their homes," Buss said in an
interview. "They lose so much by being institutionalized. They lose access to culture, they lose access to their
families, they lose access to their local school system. As long as they're not a threat to society, then keeping them
at the local jurisdictions is absolutely the best practice."
Scott has repeatedly expressed his own enthusiasm for Walters' ideas.
"I'm very optimistic about what she's going to do," Scott recently said. "It's about getting people out of the cycle … I
think we have vision."
The bills proposing a statewide juvenile civil citation program are sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico (SB
1300) and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota (HB 839).
Walters also advocates for using GPS bracelets to monitor misdemeanor offenders rather than placing them in
residential programs and developing Juvenile Assessment Centers throughout the state as prevention centers to
assess a child's treatment needs as opposed to arrest processing centers.
Although Scott proposes cutting the agency's $600 million budget by $108 million, his budget largely supports
Walters' ideas. He has called for closing two under-utilized juvenile detention centers and wings at two others. He
would use a portion of that savings — $10.4 million — for community-based services.
Scott has also allotted $4.6 million for the juvenile assessment centers and $2.2 million to expand juvenile electronic