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Gainesville Sun: Town Hall on juvenile justice is well-attended

Secretary Walters at the Alachua Town Hall Meeting
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters speaks during a town hall meeting at Santa Fe College on Tuesday in Gainesville.

Staff writer

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice held a town hall-style meeting on Tuesday night to get feedback from the community about its newest initiative.

The department's "Roadmap to System Excellence" is a push by the department to manage, assess and allocate resources to make sure the right services are provided at the right time to juvenile offenders, according to department Secretary Wansley Walters.

Walters and other members of the DJJ sat in a large room at Santa Fe College filled with community members, and microphones were set up for questions after a short introduction about the program. Walters said the DJJ is uniquely positioned in the state to be a forerunner in juvenile crime prevention, especially because the full spectrum of juvenile justice falls under one umbrella.

"This is a unique opportunity Florida has," she said. "This is not happening on this scale anywhere else."

Walters outlined three types of children that come into contact with her department. The first type is a group that simply makes mistakes but might not be repeat offenders, she said. Those kids generally don't come back and use the fewest resources.

The second — and largest — group, she said, are the kids with personal issues and criminal tendencies. Some of them suffer from substance abuse and have mental health issues. She said the key with this group is recognizing and using the right resources for these children while they're young.

The third group, she said, is a lesser known one. These are children who act out in serious criminal ways and violent actions. She said those children can generally be recognized by age 12 and younger, and that they need special attention and the DJJ needs to be proactive at every level.

Deputy Secretary Christy Daly said the DJJ is going around the state to "see what's working and what isn't." She said the DJJ's roadmap involves specific ways to manage at-risk youth.

The first way would be diversion of children who pose no risk to public safety and have no need for deeper-end services. Daly said too many kids are unnecessarily placed in the juvenile system and should be diverted away from detention and residential facilities like halfway houses.

She also said youths who are likely to show up for court should receive alternatives to lock-up so they can remain with their families and in their communities, as this may help lower the child's likelihood of reoffending.

"Youth that don't belong in detention," she said, "are going to leave with worse risk factors than when they went in."

Florida also has a wide range of residential facilities, but Daly noted the number of residents has declined by 44 percent in the past five years.

During the question-and-answer portion of the night, two women from the State Attorney's Office raised some concerns.

Assistant State Attorney Rebecca Mickholtzick said she'd like to see more emphasis put on accountability for arrested and charged juveniles. She said the state lacks sanctions to deal with children who violate probation and end up getting released in court anyway. She'd like the state to have "more teeth" so there are consequences for juveniles who violate their probation, "so it's not a joke to them."

Assistant State Attorney Pam Brockway asked Walters about funding.

"Where's the funding going to come from?" she said. "In principle these are all wonderful ideas, but what about the smaller counties?"

Brockway said Alachua County is full of resources, but there are children with severe mental health problems in lesser known counties and nowhere to place them. She said the burden can't be placed on teachers and schools.

Walters said that was part of the reason she was traveling for the meetings, to reinvest money in the system toward the "front end" and recognize the problems where they arise.

Other participants praised Walters for showing up and taking the time to confront and talk about issues facing kids in Florida, and many in the crowd applauded the efforts of the DJJ members.

Gainesville Police Department Chief Tony Jones said he was delighted to see so many people attend the event.

"It went well. We saw an open dialogue and that they are open to suggestions," he said. "It's a step in the right direction."