Friday, March 28, 2008

Stay tough on crime -- by preventing it

In a year of the steepest budget cuts in Florida history, some state-funded operations will actually get more tax dollars. These would be private-prison operators and prison-construction companies. The Legislature is poised to spend millions of dollars to build two prisons a year for the next five years. The state prison system is near capacity with nearly 100,000 inmates.
Building more prisons and passing laws that are harder on repeat offenders are often cited by lawmakers to prove their tough-on-crime bona fides. But there is a more cost-effective way to prove you're tough on crime -- prevent it from happening in the first place. Deterrence programs, when applied correctly, work. Yet, incredibly, the state's most effective crime-prevention tool is facing the budget ax. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice proposes cutting all funding for the state's Juvenile Assessment Centers, created by the Legislature in the wake of a lethal crime spike in the 1990s. The JACs are run by counties.

Can the JACs reduce demand for prison beds? Yes. Take the one run by Miami-Dade County's Juvenile Services Department. In 1995 there were 20,000 juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade. The county's JAC opened in 1997. By 2006, juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade had dropped to 10,860. The county's Juvenile Detention Center used to average 350 teen occupants a day, now the average is 100 a day. Juvenile offenders' recidivism rate has been reduced by 78 percent since the JAC opened here. Other JACs have been equally effective in turning young men and women away from the criminal path and imprisonment.

Paying for prison construction and for housing and feeding inmates costs a mint compared to what the Department of Juvenile Justice spends on deterrence, which begins when a police officer brings a youth arrested for the first time to a JAC. There, the teen is evaluated, which is crucial. It can bring down the heavy fist of the juvenile-justice system when that is warranted or, instead, begin to resolve issues that cause the youth's wayward behavior.

Gov. Crist's Juvenile Justice Blueprint Committee, headed by Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan, released its assessment of the state's juvenile-justice system in February. Among the findings is that the state must change its ''lock-em-up'' approach to one that uses treatment and residential programs to steer youths away from trouble. As difficult as the budgeting is in this cash-strapped year, the Legislature should show that it can be tough on crime by being efficient and smart. This means funding JACs and youth crime-prevention initiatives adequately. The choice should be easy. Fund the JACs or continue to spend far more dollars building state prisons.

A Miami Herald Editorial published March 29, 2008

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