Saturday, January 26, 2008

Our position: Moving state's juvenile-justice chief couldn't have come at worse time

Walt McNeil, Secretary

January 26, 2008

Juvenile criminals are creating chaos in Florida. They grow in numbers by the day. In Osceola County alone, ju- venile crime has spiked an estimated 50 percent over the past two years. The mix now includes many more girls, who are getting arrested at younger ages; 40 percent of them are committing their first offense before they turn 13.

Walter McNeil was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fix this mess in January of 2007. A year later he is gone. The timing could not be worse.

Mr. McNeil has stepped away at the governor's request to run the state's adult prison system. Although it's a promotion, that's like a contractor starting a major renovation project and then walking away with a pile of building materials scattered all over the place.

Mr. McNeil was an architect for change for 26 juvenile-detention centers in Florida -- changes that heralded a welcome balance between punishment and rehabilitation. He has strong, proactive ideas to deal with the impact of troubled youths in our communities.

They include allowing first-time offenders the option of avoiding jail through a community-service program, providing more resources for the estimated 20 percent of juveniles who are chronic offenders, and adequately meeting the needs of girls with gender-specific programs such as domestic-violence counseling.

Mr. McNeil's push for reform included appointing a 25-member Blueprint Commission, which expects to release a final report within three weeks.

A huge hole in that plan now exists. One of the 52 recommendations is for the commission to reconvene annually to measure progress.

But how does one measure progress effectively with the point man for change out of the picture -- as well as two key staff members who are also leaving?

The Governor's Office insists the transition will be smooth and that Mr. McNeil's successor will "pick up where he left off." We doubt it.

Mr. McNeil was a good fit. Who knows if his successor will follow his approach, or come in with a batch of other ideas?

Why was Mr. Crist so quick to appoint a new chief to run prisons? Why not a national search?

Mr. Crist should know that getting a handle on the problems with juveniles takes priority over running adult prisons. By the time those prisoners are adults, it's too late. Building a strong juvenile-justice system would ease the burden on adult prisons, and make life safer for everyone in Florida.

Mr. Crist had the vision to see that by hiring Mr. McNeil a year ago. But 12 months of hard work may barely have a ripple effect on the juvenile crisis.

No matter what the Pollyanna spin is, the house remains in shambles.

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