Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rethinking juvenile justice in Florida

Originally published October 23, 2007

Today's NAACP-organized march from the Florida Capitol down Adams Street to the offices of the U.S. Department of Justice is one important way to keep attention focused on changing our culture, for the better.

Today's event is to win a review of the increasingly infamous trial in Panama City, where seven former boot-camp drill instructors and a camp nurse were acquitted by an all-white jury of manslaughter charges in the death of young Martin Lee Anderson.

A student coalition and other groups and individuals who were shocked and angered by the trial's outcome suggest that violations of the federal civil-rights legislation or other evidence of a miscarriage of justice will come forth when the U.S. Attorney's Office investigates the case, including an examination of transcripts from the trial.

It is the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and it should be remembered that this isn't an imposition on officials but American democracy at work.
The Legislature, through a $5 million award to the family of the young man who died while in the charge of boot-camp officials, was not weighing in on criminality but rather acknowledging the failure of a state-run system and responsibility. All boot camps in Florida have now been closed as a result of this incident, which has proved pivotal in taking another look at public policy regarding juvenile justice.

That is perhaps the only tangible and positive outcome to date, following Martin Lee Anderson's death in 2006.

What's critical now is for Florida to begin to turn its thinking and its policies in the direction broadly ascribed to by Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walt McNeil, as well as by Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth and Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough. That is, policies of prevention, therapy, early intervention in education, job training, family involvement and in general a redirection of wayward youths that doesn't begin and end with harsh punishement and militaristic "tough love" run amok.

Florida has not done well over the years in supporting the many juvenile programs that have already committed to this approach, including some excellent ones such as PACE Center for Girls, the Eckerd wilderness camps, marine camps and various other residential and nonresidential programs aimed at turning young lives around, but struggling, struggling, struggling.

Closure in the Martin Lee Anderson case may be a long time coming, and lawmakers will eventually tire of paying out tax dollars for the incompetence or outright failure of state-run systems to do their jobs.

What's important for those who march in today's event to also keep in the forefront is changing our whole approach to juvenile justice, not just seeking it retroactively in one shocking case.

No comments: