Sad to say, Wansley Walters, secretary of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, has been an anomaly among department chiefs charged with keeping Floridians — including the incarcerated — safe, making cost-effective, savvy reforms and thwarting, rather than encouraging, recidivism.
Sadder to say, Ms. Walters announced her retirement. She will step down on June 30. She will leave behind an agency in which the culture shifted from insisting on punishing young offenders, no matter how minor the violation, to one of diversion, treatment and compassion — which is not a dirty word. It’s a necessary component to turning troubled lives around.
Her progressive vision — which included up-front accountability and media accessibility — should provide a road map for other state department secretaries to follow in their own spheres of influence. But we’re not getting our hopes up. After all, the state’s Department of Corrections has been practically mum in the face of mentally ill inmates said to be brutalized by guards and killed while in its care. The Department of Children & Families has for years paid lip service to keeping vulnerable kids safe while maintaining flawed policies that allowed almost 500 children to die from abuse and neglect in the past six years. (By the way, what’s taking Gov. Rick Scott so long to sign the reform legislation into law?)
More important, Ms. Walters leaves a string of solid accomplishments that her successor, to be chosen by Gov. Scott, should build upon, not reverse. Again, we can only hope.
Ms. Walters emphasized investment and prevention services, not locking up in detention every last kid who entered the system. That she saved, rightly, for kids who definitely posed a threat to the public’s safety. A fistfight in school does not necessarily rise to that level. Bringing a gun to school is far closer to the mark.
During Ms. Walters’ tenure, she enhanced prevention and treatment services in order to divert kids from digging themselves deeper into bad behavior and criminal activity.
Putting kids on a higher road also kept them from eventually becoming enmeshed in the adult justice system, which, basically, is the point of no return. It also means that they are suspected of committing a crime far more heinous than stealing a candy bar — something Floridians don’t want to see.
Between fiscal years 2010-11 and 2012-13, juvenile arrests went down 23 percent; felony juvenile arrests decreased 17 percent and transfers to the adult system went down 36 percent, according to DJJ. That these numbers are heading in the right direction are directly related to DJJ’s focus on prevention, not incarceration where unwarranted.
Ms. Walters’ successor should be equally committed to diversion, insisting that DJJ not become a pipeline that exists to keep Florida’s privatized prisons in business. It’s a waste of human capital — costly in far more than revenue.
It has been heartening to see that school districts have pulled back from the state’s misguided zero-tolerance policies. These led school administrators to involve the police in students’ even minor misbehavior and too often ended in a student’s arrest. Districts in Miami-Dade, Broward and other counties have eased up on this legislative stranglehold, realizing that schools exist to educate, not incarcerate.
Ms. Walters’ focus on prevention should remain her successor’s priority. Her success is the result of evidence and data of what works, not political grandstanding and trendiness.