Saturday, October 6, 2007

Don't give up

Our position: Florida's juvenile-justice program needs to focus on reforms.

October 6, 2007

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice has formed a blueprint commission, which is now seeking advice on how to deal with the rising number of kids who have lost their moral compass.

That's a good idea, but it's important that Walter McNeil, the new secretary at the DJJ, not water down some very good ideas he proposed just a few months ago.

Mr. McNeil needs to stay strong on reform. His reasoned approach includes job training to give juveniles a shot at a better life after completing their sentences; opportunities for some first-time offenders to avoid incarceration by charging them with a civil citation instead of a misdemeanor; and treating the growing number of females with a different approach.

There is a balance that must be met here: Public safety, of course, is goal No. 1. But also important is the understanding that a lock-'em-up mentality for juveniles often makes things worse. That approach throws away the keys to rehabilitation, which is why the recent surge in violent crime reflects a growing number of young adults in their '20s who began learning to be career criminals as teenagers.

The state has taken a hard-line approach toward juvenile justice since 1993, when the murder of a British tourist at a North Florida highway rest stop drew worldwide attention to Florida's crime problems.

But those results have been a disaster in some instances, as seen in the botched efforts of boot camps.

We understand these kids aren't cuddly. As most law-enforcement officials reason, there have to be consequences at some point. But there also has to be a chance at rehabilitating these lost boys and girls.

They are growing in number by the day. Osceola County's juvenile crime has spiked an estimated 50 percent over the past two years. And girls are getting arrested at younger ages; 40 percent of them are committing their first offense before the age of 13.

You can reach out to them in various ways, like a "redirection" program that would provide mental-health counseling services and drug-rehabilitation treatment. A big chunk of these kids, about 80 percent, have mental-health issues.

And why not, as Mr. McNeil proposed, open doors to vocational training in construction and shipbuilding that could lead to decent-paying jobs?

Smaller residential facilities can also lead to better care and treatment.

We understand there are no easy fixes here. Funding will always be a sticking point. And it's obvious that problems begin with dysfunctional families. "Trash-can children," as they are sometimes called, are often discarded and become society's problems.

Government can't be their parents. But it can try to give them a lifeline to get out of the muck.

Stick to your game plan, Mr. McNeil. It has good potential.

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