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Five Questions for Wansley Walters, Head of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice

| May 31, 2012

Wansley Walters

Before becoming secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Wansley Walters directed the Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department, considered a national model for saving money while reducing the juvenile arrest rate. She’s the first woman to lead DJJ and also led Gov. Rick Scott’s juvenile justice transition team as he assumed office.

Among the team’s recommendations: expansion of the civil citation program as an arrest alternative for juveniles who commit misdemeanor crimes. In Miami-Dade, Walters spear-headed the use of civil citations and other diversion programs with generally applauded results. From 1998 to 2008, juvenile arrests dropped by 51 percent there, juvenile detention by 66 percent and re-arrests by 80 percent. It’s estimated that Miami-Dade saved more than $20 million as a result.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Wansley Walters:

Q: Juvenile delinquency is dropping both statewide and nationwide. Why?

WALTERS: It’s because, as a field, we have become much more aware of what the research and evidence-based programming is telling us. And that is: You really need to pay attention to the issues going on with a child who is acting out criminally. And by and large, when you begin to pay attention to that child at the earliest possible point, you see them turn around.

In the old days, there was a prevailing philosophy that…we’ll wait until they’ve been arrested two or three or four times before we start to get into the meat of the issues and start to apply the sort of therapies that might be applicable to them.

But the problem with waiting that long is they’ve also become more criminally involved and they’re probably committing more and more serious crimes. So many times these children are being taken out of the very environments where they would be the most successful in receiving those interventions.

Q: How do you decide which interventions are the most effective for each youth?

WALTERS: What we began to do is start to apply assessments at the earliest point of entry. To give you an example, we have three shoplifters. First-time offenders. If you just look at them as first-time offenders, you might have them do community service, go to a shop-lifting course to learn why this is such a terrible thing to be doing – and then you just hope for the best.

Well, we began to learn that that might be fine for one of the shoplifters, who really shows through assessment and family review and an educational review that he’s not having any serious issues and it really was a mistake. The second child, we go through an assessment and we learn that this is a child who has substance abuse issues – and ignoring that very fact is not going to prevent him from getting in trouble again.

The third child has started to act out because she’s being abused at home by her mother’s boyfriend and no one is listening to her or paying attention to her. Now, that situation requires a whole array of additional resources and services to be provided to this child.

Q: Your strategy is that providing front-end services is more cost-effective?

WALTERS: It allows us to be very strategic with our resources. It allows us not to intrude too terribly on children that don’t really need to be in the Department of Juvenile Justice. It allows us to show that child that we’re paying attention to them and really get to what is going on in their life immediately. And it allows us to make sure our resources are being utilized where they need to be as opposed to wasting them on children who really don’t need them. And then we don’t have enough for the children who do.

Q: There’s been an effort to legally require civil citations for kids arrested at school for misdemeanors. What’s your approach to that?

WALTERS: It is difficult to get the support of law enforcement if you dictate who they can arrest and who they cannot arrest, because in the state of Florida, the authority to make that decision is with a law enforcement officer. I think what is much more effective is for us to work with law enforcement and the schools so that we can provide them with an array of options, so that they would feel more comfortable allowing us to work with them and maybe put these children in different types of diversion programs. And I can tell you that in Miami-Dade County, there has been a 60 percent reduction in arrests in the schools.

It is possible to really rethink how we approach this. But again, when a law enforcement officer has only one option, he will make an arrest hoping that things will get sorted out. I think we can develop a better and more effective partnership. I do not think law enforcement would ever support any legislation that dictated to them in general who they could and could not arrest, because that should be made on an individual basis.

Q: So your strategy includes cutting beds? Didn’t the Legislature direct you in proviso language to cut state beds first?

WALTERS: We do have too many beds. We are finding that with these new approaches, we have 50 percent less demand for beds in our residential treatment facilities. And we are currently working on a strategy that will reduce the beds and begin to shift more money into the communities so that we can offer the type of services that are currently offered in residential facilities so the children can stay home.

Regarding the proviso language, we are required to do a review of state beds prior to cutting any private beds. And certainly we respect that proviso language and we are following it. With regard to reduction of other programs, as we are working to implement our overall strategy, we are finding that we are in contractual relationships with programs and providers where they have been in business with us, their contract has been renewed as many times as is contractually allowed, but we are not in need of the services.

So it’s rather difficult to procure new beds that you don’t need simply to keep the program open. We have in the past closed lower-performing residential programs. Now we’re left with programs that are good programs, but we’re not seeing the need…. So at some point we will be implementing a new competitive process for the reduced number of beds, and our primary concern is that it is a fair and equitable process for all the providers.

–News Service of Florida

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