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Orlando Sentinel: Putting wayward youth on right road


While leading Miami-Dade's Juvenile Services Department, Wansley Walters slashed arrests and confinements by de emphasizing detention and focusing on juvenile-offender services.

Turns out that her Miami experience laid the groundwork for the path she intends to take as secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. She's barnstorming Florida, promoting the Roadmap to System Excellence, the blueprint that emphasizes prevention over detention, with a focus on front-end services.

Here's an excerpt of the Editorial Board's recent conversation with Walters.

Q: What was the biggest problem with the system you inherited?

A: The juvenile justice system was never intended to be a mini-adult system, but I think it's been viewed as [such]. When you hold 10-year-olds responsible for their behavior ... when some of them don't even understand it's criminal behavior, that's a huge mistake, and I don't think that was the intention.

Q: What's behind the Roadmap to System Excellence?

A: When I was appointed [secretary], the intention was ... we would engage in juvenile justice reform. I believe that healthy, well-adjusted children don't develop into dangerous criminals, and there's a lot we can do to hold them off at the pass. We believe to just wholesale children deeply into the system is not effective. ... I personally believe the juvenile justice system has inflicted damage on many, many children, not intentionally, but it has. We have made their lives very difficult and their challenges greater, and I think we can do better by these children.

Q: Given the Legislature's traditional snubbing of prevention programs, is it possible to accomplish your goals without additional funding?

A: [In Miami], we saw we could reduce our arrests ... we can reduce detentions ... we could reduce re-arrests, but what you never do is completely block that influx of children coming into the system. But we are preventing these children from going deeper into the system.

And why is that important? Because this system is expensive. ... When we are able to reduce the deeper end, [it'll] allow us to take some of those resources to invest in the front to keep children from coming into the system or stop them in their tracks wherever they enter the system. ... But there has to be an investment.

Q: Has perception hampered reform?

A: This department has been seen as a throwaway department for throwaway kids. ... It is important that people in the state of Florida recognize that most of these children are not the children that they see on the 11 o'clock news. There are tens of thousands of children that we are working with every day that are no different than other children. These are just children that need to have the advocacy and services in place to keep them from getting in trouble.

Q: How does the roadmap address youth who do need confinement and rehabilitative services?

A: It is of no value to them that the water is so muddy that we don't know what to do with children who manifest their issues criminally and that have become violent. We are starting to determine that there is a group of juveniles that do come into our system who are really falling into a gap between juvenile justice system and adult system. We may not have the right tools in place at the deepest end of the system to address a child that is that serious. We have begun conversations with some state attorneys on how we bridge that gap and really provide a deeper level of service with a more comprehensive integration back into the community for those children to prevent them from ever making their way into the adult system.

Q: Should the tough-on-crime crowd worry you're going soft on serious offenders?

A: I am a big believer that when you're dealing with dangerous violent offenders, no matter how old they are, the public needs to be protected. There's a role for detention and a role for deep-end residential placement, but we are dealing with almost 100,000 juveniles a year, and the vast majority of them don't need to be down at the end of the pool.