A children’s advocacy group says the state isn’t putting enough money behind an effort to put fewer kids in juvenile lock-ups and instead get them preventive services.
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters has trumpeted a blueprint for overhauling Florida’s troubled juvenile justice system, called the “Roadmap to System Excellence.” It relies on putting fewer youths in residential facilities, which have high recidivism rates, and instead using community-based sanctions, such as civil citations, to keep them out of the deep end of the system.
The advocacy group, Voices for Florida, released a report this week lauding the goals of the program, but questioning whether it will work, noting that DJJ’s budget has been reduced by nearly $96 million in the last four years – about one-fifth of the agency’s current budget.
At the same time, the group notes, the agency is asking for little in the way of new funding for civil citations, mental health and substance abuse treatment and other front-end services in its pending legislative budget request.
“There’s no direct dollar amount attached to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s (budget request), nor the governor’s budget that (shows) how much we’re going to redirect from back end to front end,” said Voices executive director Linda Alexionok. “Secondarily, and probably most important, how much is needed?”
The Voices report also notes a gap between the agency’s budget request and Gov. Rick Scott’s budget recommendations, which would cut probation services by an additional $1.5 million.
Alexionok said DJJ should adopt a report card to show how it will fund the Roadmap and ensure that adequate resources are directed to front-end services.
But DJJ spokeswoman Meghan Speakes Collins said in a statement that the Voices report overlooked major reductions in juvenile crime in recent years, “reductions that contribute greatly to the right-sizing of DJJ’s budget.” These include a drop of 34 percent in delinquency arrests and a drop of 46 percent in the number of youths ordered to residential lock-ups over the last five years.
DJJ also says it can ask for fewer dollars precisely because of the changes it is making – which are in part designed to save money. For example, DJJ doubled its use of civil citations, an alternative to arrest for first-time misdemeanants, from fiscal year 2010-2011 to 2011-2012. That means it can ask lawmakers for few dollars, because “it is a paper process that saves both time and money without a cost to taxpayers.”
According to DJJ, it has reduced the number of residential and detention beds by 4,086 over the last six years, a budget savings of $177.3 million.
It’s also working to reduce youth crime, the agency says.
“Youth are being more commonly directed to community-based alternatives to secure detention and residential commitment, alternatives that statistically reduce recidivism rates and therefore improve public safety outcomes,” said Speakes Collins.
The report comes as a former guard at the now-defunct Milton Girls Juvenile Detention Facility is on trial for abusing a teen incarcerated there last year. Walters and Gulf Coast Youth Services, which had operated the facility, agreed to end its contract after the incident.
Since last September, when the first draft of the Roadmap was released, Walters has held 11 town hall meetings statewide to seek feedback from stakeholders – including a number of parents who expressed regret for reporting their delinquent children to the authorities.