Saturday, December 09, 2006

Juvenile Justice: Back to the Future

Is it or isn't it? Confusion reigns over whether the "Juvenile Assessment and Detention Center" for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties is open or closed.

Last week, it was closing. This week, it's open. Even the cops -- never mind your hairdresser -- don't know for sure.

The issue of the moment is whether sheriff deputies and policemen on the beat, or experts in juvenile behavior employed by the Department of Juvenile Justice, should bear primary responsibility for screening newly-detained juveniles for such matters as risks of flight, suicide, medical needs, home detention, secure lock-up.

Specially-trained DJJ workers have been doing it for at least the past decade. But a few weeks ago, the Juvenile Justice Department announced plans to scuttle the program and hand off responsibility to arresting officers.

Law enforcement officers were outraged.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice started furiously back-peddling. "We're just talking with local law enforcement and other community stakeholders about a positive solution," she told the Pensacola News Journal with less than complete candor.

Adds reporter Nicole Lozare:
That was news to local law enforcement officials later in the day, who have been scrambling all week to prepare for the closing and train their officers on the new intake procedure handed down by the state.
There are larger issues behind this latest flap. Over the past decade, a series of Florida Supreme Court decisions determined that under-age suspects taken into custody by law enforcement officers shouldn't be left to commit suicide or mysteriously die while in police custody. That left the Florida legislature with no alternative but to drag itself, kicking and screaming, into the Twentieth Century -- just in time for the beginning of the Twenty-first.

So in recent years Florida, in common with other states, required that juveniles arrested for anything from minor offenses like disturbing the peace or vandalism to major crimes must be screened within four hours by trained experts for the seriousness of the offense, past juvenile record, risk of flight, and mental stability. The overall screening process is designed to protect both the public and the lives of juvenile suspects. Or, in the words expressing the mission of the Department of Juvenile Justice, "to protect the public by reducing juvenile crime and delinquency in Florida."

Although DJJ claims it provides "strong prevention and early intervention services for at-risk youth and minor offenders," the reality is that the state's juvenile justice system is near the breaking point. The on-going PR war between Department and local enforcement agencies is only the latest symptom. The cruel death of Martin Lee Anderson at the hands and boots of deputy sheriffs manning a Bay County boot camp, is another.

The larger issue is that the state legislature has been short-changing the budget of the state's Department of Juvenile Justice for years. Over the past decade caseloads have exploded along with the state's growing population, but DJJ's budget hasn't grown apace. Field personnel have been cut. Salaries have stagnated. Caseloads doubled, and doubled again. Experienced personnel have left in disgust. More are headed for the door.

So, DJJ is starting to cheat. Two telling examples, among a host of others:
  • National quality standards for juvenile offender workers specify the maximum allowable caseload for a juvenile justice worker is about 30 cases per employee. That standard once was included in the Department's own manuals. When DJJ executives realized the press of work and lack of personnel was causing the average worker's caseload to double or even triple, they arbitrarily changed the "allowable" per-worker caseload, and then eliminated it altogether. Today, many juvenile probation officers in the local area carry caseloads ranging well over a hundred open cases.
  • DJJ requires its juvenile case workers to code their work hours into a state computer every week. When the rising workload started causing case workers to stay on the job 15 to 30 hours a week overtime, state officials simply re-programmed the payroll software to make it impossible for employees to log more than 40 hours a week on the job, even if they worked far more.
Management decisions like these don't solve problems. What they do is hide them. At the top, DJJ administrators are fighting a public relations war, not a battle against juvenile crime or for juvenile justice.

Back to the Future. If what it's doing in Northwest Florida is any indication of statewide trends, the Department of Juvenile Justice is back-sliding to where it was before Florida joined the Twentieth Century: untrained policemen stuck with newly arrested juveniles instead of continuing their patrols; often-troubled youths incarcerated without mental health screening; increased risk of suicide by juvenile offenders arrested on minor charges.

Everyone knows you get what you pay for in this life. If you want "protect the public by reducing juvenile crime and delinquency in Florida" then you have to pay for the service.

There is no reason why juvenile justice, or the sheriff's deputies and city policemen on the street, should be subsidizing Florida taxpayers. If a juvenile worker puts in forty hours a week, he ought to be paid for forty hours; if he works eighty hours, he ought to be paid for eighty hours. If proper caseload management requires twice as many juvenile justice employees as we have, then the legislature should appropriate the necessary funds to hire them.

Likewise, if we want our law enforcement officers to be out enforcing the law, then we shouldn't expect them to be babysitters.

No comments: