Tallahassee Democrat 04/17/2011
Juvenile justice reform is one bright spot
Mary Ann Lindley
Editorial Page Editor
Sometimes good things happen for bad reasons, just as bad things can happen for no apparent reason at all.
One of the good things happening this spring is reforming Florida’s approach to juvenile justice to make it less costly
and more effective; less detention and more front-end rehabilitation. This review is largely because of brutal budget
deficits. We no longer can afford the old way, which involves throwing a number of adolescents to the lions each
Last May, a direction for reform was indicated when the U.S.
Supreme Court commuted the 1989 life sentence without parole of Terrance Graham, who at age 16 had been part
of an armed robbery in Jacksonville. Florida State University law professor Paulo Annino said Graham v. Florida was
important because it recognized that kids who get in serious trouble must nonetheless to be treated differently from
adults. Putting underage offenders who need long-term punishment or rehabilitation into mainstream prisons
strengthens a pattern of anti-social behavior, because juvenile inmates are rarely prepared to return to society, he
said. They are lost to “the system” forever.
But juveniles who get into trouble just once also wind up spiraling into the deep hole of a system that shackles not
only the teens but also those who work within the system’s strict and expensive statutory confines.
Gov. Rick Scott’s new Department of Juvenile Justice secretary, Wansley Walters, may be the ideal change agent.
As director of juvenile services in Miami-Dade County for 10 years, she both reduced costs and improved outcomes
for the youths who found themselves in the juvenile system.
“We need a mechanism for a kid to do something stupid and be able to walk away without completely throwing them
under the bus,” Walters told the Democrat Editorial Board on Tuesday.
That group is a big one, and it can be addressed other than by detention and criminal records.
“For the $300 a day it costs to keep a juvenile in detention, you could put them up in a fivestar hotel with room
service,” she said.
Walters is not only passionate about kids, but also deadly serious about collecting information to identify patterns
and trends necessary for reform.
She describes three kinds of juveniles to be dealt with:
? Those who do something stupid one time and probably won’t again — candidates for civil citations instead of arrest.
? Those who have destructive issues from sexual abuse to learning disorders — this is the biggest group and most
in need of frontend intervention.
? Those already in the deep end of criminality — the smallest group, but the most dangerous and most expensive.
Walters’ methods are described as smart-justice alternatives.
“Smart justice has a very conservative base,” she said, “though it means huge policy shifts to the front-end system”
of prevention, diversion and rehabilitation.
This suggests that the new conservativism is coincidentally now in sync with old-fashioned liberalism. But however
the politics shake out, it’s refreshing to know that sometimes the twain shall meet — and on what better topic than
how to address juveniles who are making life miserable for themselves and others. “The system has always
recognized that prevention had a role.
We know that children
who are most dangerous as teens often began to manifest violent behaviors by age 12,” Walters said. “But law
enforcement has had but one tool at its disposal, and that’s arrest.”
Walters wants to see civil citations more widely and wisely used. They would provide an option for officers to make a
judgment call in those instances where “the child’s issues are clearly more important than the crime they committed.”
How to get there?
Legislation (CS/HB 997) will help. Sponsored by Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, and co-sponsored by Rep.
Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, it requires DJJ to implement civil citation and similar diversion programs for use by
local law officers, state attorneys, service providers and others.
But reform takes more than statutory revisions.
“In Miami, as a community we started focusing on the same agenda,” Walters said.
“Everyone has an assigned role, but we wanted to start looking at it as ‘our system,’ and stop looking at it from a
They collaborated more, moved more teens to front-end systems and reduced rearrests.
She admitted that civil citations aren’t used enough by some officers in the street.
In Key Biscayne and South Beach they’re more widely used than in tougher areas like Liberty City and Overtown,
Yet for the juveniles in any part of any town, the goal is to get them on the other side of their misdemeanor with no
arrest record that can deny them school loans, scholarships, military service or jobs.
It’s key to interrupting that downward spiral, she explains: The adolescent does a stupid thing, like steal a bike.
He’s arrested, hauled off to jail, ordered back to court in six or eight weeks. If he has a parent who works at job
where she can’t get time off, doesn’t have a car, loses the summons, doesn’t speak English, or whose own life is in
disarray, her child may not show up in court.
He’s arrested again for contempt. and now his troubles are double.
“His relationship with Mom is hurt, and with his teachers. The only positive feedback he gets is from the other kids in
And there’s a whole different spin on girls who are arrested. Seventy percent have been sexually abused and 80
percent in some fashion. Most are angry as hell, and we would be too in that situation.”
The end is not really in sight, of course.
After years of working with juveniles, Walters says, “This stuff still makes me crazy.
But I know it’s possible to change because we changed things in Miami. A front-end system is going to work.
A front-end system is going to save children.”
Right now juvenilejustice reform has the support of sheriffs, public defenders, state attorneys, judges, TaxWatch,
Associated Industries and others.
But Walters is no fool: “We need to document every step, because we need to show legislators that just because we
reduce arrests and detention, they cannot decide to take these resources away.”
_ Mary Ann Lindley is editorial page editor of the Tallahassee Democrat and tallahassee.com. Contact her at
firstname.lastname@example.org, (850) 599-2178 or through Twitter or Facebook.
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