Saturday, January 19, 2008

Juvenile justice chief to lead state Corrections Department


Walt McNeil, who just completed his first year as the state's juvenile justice chief, was given a tough promotion Tuesday when the governor made him the second African American in state history to lead Florida's increasingly burdened prison system.

McNeil takes the reins of the $2 billion Department of Corrections as the state budget shrinks and the number of inmates swells past 95,000. By year's end, about 100,000 people will be locked up, triggering the likely need for $649 million more in prison construction spending next year.

Against that backdrop, advocates are pressing federal court challenges to Florida's lethal-injection procedures and the state's treatment of a fast-growing segment of the prison population: mentally ill inmates, some of whom had been repeatedly pepper-sprayed by guards.

''The governor didn't give me this job and say it was going to be easy,'' said McNeil, who didn't volunteer for the job. ``When the governor calls, you have to do a gut check.''

Gov. Charlie Crist has yet to name McNeil's successor at the Department of Juvenile Justice, which McNeil managed without scandal a year after the last high-profile death of a child, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, occurred under his predecessor.

McNeil, a 52-year-old former Tallahassee police chief, was spared one troubling challenge that his DOC predecessor, Jim McDonough, had to clean up: a federal corruption probe that ensnared former prisons chief Jim Crosby in a bribery scheme, and a ''culture of brutality'' -- in McDonough's words -- that fostered rampant violence between guards, who did everything from beating inmates to selling steroids to stealing prison property.

McDonough, a former U.S. Army colonel, fired bad guards and prison leaders en masse and, after a turbulent year, retired Tuesday with Crist's congratulations for having ``righted the ship.''

McNeil, a Democrat and practicing Methodist, said he would like to expand faith-based prison programs, having participated in a federal prison program when he was police chief. He also said the plight of mentally ill inmates ''screams out'' for more attention.

McNeil's appointment was praised by black legislators as another sign of Crist's open administration. McNeil acknowledged the troubling trend in Florida and the nation in which blacks are disproportionately locked up. They comprise about 16 percent of the state population and 50.4 percent of the prison population. McNeil said he wasn't sure whether ''the data'' showed that blacks commit more crimes or are just more likely to be targeted for arrest.

McNeil wouldn't venture an opinion on whether the state should consider decriminalizing drug laws now that more nonviolent drug offenders are being incarcerated.

''It is not my job to decide legislation,'' he said. ``I'm not going to second-guess that.''

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