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Juvenile boot camps about to be toned down, March 25, 2006

Juvenile boot camps in Florida are about to disappear - at least in name - and be replaced by kinder, gentler versions that will emphasize counseling over military-style drills and exercise, state lawmakers said Friday.

The camps are to be named "Star Academies" and will get more money as well.

The House committee overseeing the budget for the Department of Juvenile Justice approved the change in name, money and policy to make them clones of Martin County's boot camp, the most successful in Florida. Senate counterparts are expected to agree with the House plan.

The action came two and a half months after 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson's death at a Panama City boot camp after guards forced him to exercise, then punched and kneed him when he couldn't continue.

His death on Jan. 6 is still under investigation as a special prosecutor weighs whether to file criminal charges against anyone at the camp. That camp is about to close, and the remaining four will be improved as a result of Martin's death, an all-too-familiar story for lawmakers and activists who cite the case of 14-year-old Omar Paisley.

His 2003 death in a Miami lockup led to Department of Juvenile Justice changes.

"It is heartbreaking to continuously make changes only after a death occurs, " said Rep. Mitch Needleman, a Melbourne Republican. Needleman and other committee members say they want a "holistic" model that emphasizes counseling and education rather than exercise and strict discipline.

The sheriffs who run the four remaining camps in Florida - in Martin, Manatee, Pinellas and Polk counties - say they support the idea because they're tired of being portrayed as running juvenile gulags. Plus, for years they've asked for more money but have been rebuffed.

MORE MONEY

Under the new plan, the camps would see a 22 percent increase in the money the state pays them on a daily basis for watching each kid. The rate now is $81.39, and the committee proposed a $100 rate, for a total cost of $10.5 million.

The committee was able to raise the rate without dramatically increasing spending because it wants to redirect the money from the Bay Boot Camp.

"We are eliminating boot camps as they now stand in the state of Florida completely, " said Rep. Gus Barreiro, a Miami Beach Republican who chairs the House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee. "If the boot camps adopt our policies, they will be funded. If they don't want to adopt them, they won't be funded."

Barreiro's proposed budget will likely be approved by the Senate, and thus the entire Legislature, said Sen. Rod Smith, an Alachua Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate's criminal justice appropriations committee.

Smith made sure the Senate's budget requires the detention facilities to have registered nurses, and he included $250,000 for more medical care for children. The House budget has no money for that. The governor recommends $3.7 million.

Smith praised the House plan, which essentially requires the new facilities to clone Martin County's boot camp. Martin County de-emphasized military discipline and increased mental health treatment, drug counseling and aftercare and mentoring services.

The wide array of services allowed the Martin camp to have the lowest re-offender rate in the state: 22 percent.

Martin's sheriff, Bob Crowder, had planned to close his camp for lack of money, but now he is reconsidering. However, Crowder wanted a daily rate of $115, not $100. Crowder couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

"Martin County has something that works, " said Rep. Sandra Adams, an Oviedo Republican who is on the House appropriations committee. "Would I call it a boot camp? I don't think so."

TOTAL BAN WANTED

Some lawmakers, including Barreiro, had urged the committee to eliminate all of the state's boot camps in the wake of Martin's death, arguing the camps' emphasis on physical discipline was not effective in turning around troubled teens, some of whom came from physically abusive families. However, sheriffs pointed out that their camps were not as hands-on as the Panama City camp.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said he likes the House plan but added that sheriffs want to analyze it and make sure they're getting enough to run the camps.

"They could say $100, and that sounds great, but not if they give us $140 worth of demand, " Judd said. DJJ Secretary Anthony Schembri has met with sheriffs to discuss new policies - including the reduction in the use of force on kids - but his plan has yet to be released.

COOPERATIVE EFFORT

"This is a legislative decision, " agency spokeswoman Cynthia Lorenzo said Friday. "We are working in cooperation with the Legislature and the sheriff's offices to make all our programs as effective as possible."

House members, who have wielded enormous influence over the Department of Juvenile Justice in recent years amid a spate of scandals that have drawn national attention, touted Friday's action as a signal they will not tolerate programs that do not help children - or actually harm them.

"This is a big win for kids who are coming into the system, " Barreiro said. "It took the death of Martin Lee Anderson for us to say we need to do away with these programs. We need to make sure this young man didn't die in vain."

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