Juvenile injustice . . .

The Department of Juvenile Justice has wasted taxpayers' money on unneeded juvenile detention facilities while its proven rehabilitation programs face cuts.

Gov. Jeb Bush said at last year's inauguration that he longs for the day when state buildings stand empty as �silent monuments� to a government no longer needed. But surely even our minimalist governor doesn't condone constructing juvenile prisons at taxpayer expense, only to have them sit vacant indefinitely. Yet, that's what has happened in Florida � in triplicate, no less � thanks to former leaders of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice. According to the Times' Curtis Krueger, DJJ built three facilities for juvenile offenders in late 2002 and early 2003, at a cost to the state and federal government of nearly $25-million, that have remained virtually unused ever since. The state pays thousands of dollars a month just to maintain the empty buildings. These vacant DJJ facilities are a silent monument all right � to waste, if not something more sinister. At best, the buildings reflect incompetent planning. At worst, they reflect the cynical attempt of DJJ's former leaders to push a �tough on crime� agenda that distorted the reality of juvenile crime rates. �The previous Juvenile Justice administration . . . misled policymakers into believing it was necessary,� Children's Campaign president Roy Miller told Krueger.

DJJ's own Web site shows that the number of juveniles referred for offenses has fallen steadily since 1995 � as has the seriousness of crimes committed. What has not declined, however, is the number of juveniles sent to residential facilities because of nonviolent offenses, such as violating probation. DJJ's lockdown programs are filled with young people guilty of �technical� crimes, when other sanctions would prove less expensive and more effective. The sad irony is that DJJ built the vacant facilities, in part, by siphoning money from much-needed alternative programs. Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services (CINS/FINS), which operates crisis programs for runaways and their families, has lost 25 percent of its budget to cuts in the past four years. PACE Centers for Girls and the Associated Marine Institutes also suffered cuts under former DJJ Secretary Bill Bankhead. To his credit, DJJ's new chief, Anthony Schembri, puts greater stock in prevention and treatment than his predecessor ever did. But Schembri faces old patterns and new pressures that could jeopardize his priorities. Schembri has already signaled that DJJ may soon cut some services to address a funding shortfall, though CINS/FINS is expected to be spared. State leaders should work together to pump up DJJ's proven programs instead of wasting money on facilities it doesn't need.

24 November 2004

home / Previous viewpoint