Thursday, September 20, 2007

Juvenile Justice set to reverse course, cut programs that deter teen crime

The former Tallahassee police chief chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist to head Florida's juvenile justice system this year announced soon after taking over that the state would fight crime in a new way.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil said Florida would not keep dumping the bulk of its money into youth lockups. Instead, the state would take a balanced approach, investing in less expensive prevention programs that stop teens from skipping school, joining gangs and committing crimes.

Legislative leaders and youth advocates say they now are surprised that the agency and governor's office presented budget plans that would do just the opposite - chopping millions from programs proven to reform teens who have not yet committed crimes as adults.

As the state held its first round of hearings last month on plans to reduce a $1.1 billion budget shortfall, Rep. Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Committee on Juvenile Justice, wrote a memo saying that the agency's proposed cuts would sabotage Florida's attempts at juvenile justice reform.

The cuts to proven programs were "appalling," he wrote to Rep. Dick Kravitz, chairman of the House Safety and Security Council, on Aug. 31.

The intent of juvenile justice reform, Needelman wrote, "was to abolish the archaic system that had failed juvenile offenders so miserably and 'warehoused' them in a mire of outdated policies until they finally aged out of the system and graduated into full-fledged adult criminals."

Under the budget proposed by Crist, 45 percent of all public safety cuts would be at the Department of Juvenile Justice, a far greater percentage than the reduction at the Department of Corrections.

The proposal would take $3 million from Redirections, a program the legislature established in 2004 and expanded by $6 million to a budget of more than $11 million earlier this year. The program, which provides intense therapy for families of teens who are violating probation and committing crimes, would be forced to scale back its expansion plans by 422 teens statewide, some in Palm Beach County.

113 girls would be dropped

The governor's plan also would hamper a planned expansion of the PACE Center for Girls, a day school and counseling program, cutting its budget from $11.6 million to the $10.5 million it received in 2005-06. A total of 113 girls would be cut from the program, and the state likely would have to eliminate two centers, PACE spokeswoman Mary Marx said.

Roy Miller, who advocates for children's issues as head of the Children's Campaign, said, "It appears that some advisers in the governor's budget office haven't gotten the word about the new direction of public safety and juvenile justice in Florida."

Anthony DeLuise, a spokesman for Crist, said that in a difficult budget year, the governor suggested cuts to programs that were scheduled to expand. Crist "is certainly still committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the many very important programs they provide," DeLuise said.

West Palm Beach's PACE Center for Girls provides education and counseling for 40 girls who are making mistakes that could one day get them locked up, killed or pregnant. Some have joined gangs or committed crimes such as stealing a car.

When they first come to PACE, said Executive Director Angela Clarke, many of the girls are confrontational or withdrawn. Gradually, Clarke said, workers peel back the layers of their anger to find the true problem. For many, it is a deep sadness. Statewide, a quarter of the girls have a father or both parents in jail, and 10 percent have seen a parent die.

Helping teens and parents

Alicia, 16, said the program helps "girls who have lost their way." Before she came to PACE, she said, her mother was worried for her and cried all the time.

Alicia started the program as a 10th-grader. After a little over a year in the program, she will return to her home school a senior, on track to graduate a year early. After college, she would like to help other teens who are struggling, maybe as a probation officer.

"I'm trying to make my mom happy," she said. "That's my goal."

The Redirections initiative, started by the legislature in 2004, has similar goals. In that program, therapists teach teens how to resolve problems at school and at home. They work closely with families, helping parents regain control of their teens. State and national studies have shown that Redirections programs are effective at deterring crime.

Legislators will meet in a special session beginning Oct. 3 to make up the deficit, caused by a dip in the housing market and a drop in sales tax receipts.

Last month, every state agency was asked to recommend 10 percent in possible cuts to the legislature. It wasn't possible to do that to the Department of Juvenile Justice's $700 million budget without cutting into worthwhile programs, McNeil said.

He told state legislators he was not endorsing any of the cuts he was forced to bring to them and said he has been a strong supporter of programs such as PACE for more than a decade because he could see that they worked.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, said he has no plans to cut teens from juvenile justice programs.

"I'll be right up front," said Crist, no relation to the governor. "The governor's proposal is significantly different than the Senate's." He said he disagrees with the governor's plan, which "whacks into the Department of Juvenile Justice pretty significantly and then holds the Department of Corrections pretty harmless."

Children's Campaign President Miller said the state won't be able to solve its budget crisis by ignoring teens on the brink of becoming serious criminals. "Florida won't be able to build enough prisons if we don't invest in children," Miller said. "It will bankrupt the state."

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

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