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