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Tallahassee Democrat: Cathy Craig-Myers: Tweaks can make DJJ's plan even better

There is a lot to like about the Department of Juvenile Justice’s new Roadmap to System Excellence, the topic of a recent town hall meeting in Tallahassee. Members of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association (FJJA), who deliver services across Florida ranging from prevention through re-entry and everything in between, know that with every well intentioned plan, the devil is often in the details. And in this case, details do matter.

In general, the proposed two-year Roadmap does a fine job of building on the strengths of Florida’s unique statewide system, and it broadens efforts to put greater emphasis on the “front end” of the system. Laudable goals include increasing investment in prevention programs, expanding the use of civil citation as a diversion option, limiting the use of secure detention to situations where it’s really required, expanding assessment services, reserving residential beds for the most serious youth with specialized needs, and improving the overall quality and effectiveness of staff and programs.

Clearly the time is right to embark on systemic improvements to Florida’s juvenile justice system. However, we must be careful not to jeopardize successful programs, and equally careful not to leave out improvements that are essential to the Roadmap’s success. As we survey our membership for additional feedback on how to ensure the success of this plan, FJJA members have identified one recommendation that could be a step backward, two important issues involving delinquent youth in Florida that are omitted entirely, and a third issue that must be strengthened. We are optimistic that DJJ will consider these and other areas going forward.

The Roadmap recommends that we return to a State Juvenile Probation Officer (JPO) supervision model for kids returning home from a residential program, eliminating the highly successful Community-Based Intervention Services (CBIS) treatment model that has been implemented statewide over the last five years. National research, and Florida’s own experience indicate that using state JPO’s to supervise re-entry youth is one of the least effective means to prevent further involvement with the justice system. The CBIS model, developed by DJJ, appropriately combines supervision, case management and treatment and uses local community organizations to see that the whole child and the child’s family are appropriately supported. Data indicate that this approach has resulted in 76 percent to 92 percent of the youth (the range varying somewhat by judicial circuit) being crime free one year after release from the program, as compared with 50-59 percent under the old JPO model. Clearly a “smart justice” approach might question this part of the Roadmap.

Two areas not yet addressed in the Roadmap concern education services and the fact that Florida still sends more youths to the adult system than any other state.

On the first issue, the FJJA will sponsor legislation to improve the way we deliver education services in the juvenile justice system. While the proposed legislation is too comprehensive to summarize in a brief My View, the department is encouraged to review FJJA’s proposals and incorporate its objectives into the Roadmap. Education is still one of the most powerful ways to make a difference with these young people.

On the second issue, the time is right for Florida to re-think its handling of young offenders, particularly those under 16 years of age. Last year, more than 2,700 juveniles were transferred or waivered to the adult court system. Youths who experience the adult system have higher recidivism rates, higher suicide rates and higher sexual victimization. Florida’s laws, some of the toughest in the nation, were largely created during the crime wave of the 1980s and into the early ’90s. Today, we know a lot more about youth development. Younger brains are not fully developed, and youths often don’t understand consequences and are more likely to be amenable to change as they mature. A recent national survey of adults found overwhelming support for handling youths in the juvenile justice system rather than in adult criminal court.

Another issue worth including is the needs of girls. Girls make up the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice system. We know that most girls who wind up in the justice system have family problems, trauma or a history of abuse. A recent report by the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy says the system isn't doing enough to help young girls. Florida has gotten off to a great start but must keep improving.

DJJ’s Roadmap to System Excellence provides a promising pathway to enhancing services and outcomes for juveniles and their families. With just a few improvements — such as keeping the community-based treatment model, addressing education service improvements, reducing the number of youths handled by the adult system and building on expanding gender responsive services — the road has a chance to become a superhighway.

Cathy Craig-Myers is executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association. Contact her at cathy@fjja.org.