Despite challenges, Florida’s juvenile justice system continues to improve

DJJ education staff work with youths at the inaugural Pinewood Derby Challenge between students at two DJJ residential facilities to design and build cars.
DJJ education staff work with youths at the inaugural Pinewood Derby Challenge between students at two DJJ residential facilities to design and build cars. Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Facebook

Recent Herald articles about the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) raise significant concerns about the agency’s operation. Unfortunately, they paint an incomplete picture.

Six years ago, DJJ embarked on an effort to strategically transform the way it serves at-risk and delinquent youth. This has been a daunting task filled with challenges, but led by a committed group of policymakers and practitioners, the agency has demonstrated great successes along the way.

In the past, and like most states, Florida relied heavily on services that emphasized deterrence, surveillance and control. Research shows that these types of programs do a poor job of reducing delinquency, and can actually increase the likelihood that youth will re-offend.

DJJ recognized that the core principle upon which its system needed to be rebuilt was that kids are moldable and that their behavior can be corrected if they receive services that address their needs. That did not mean that kids wouldn’t be held accountable for their actions, but that DJJ would utilize a more-balanced approach focused on providing services that would keep youth on track, reduce recidivism, and increase public safety.

DJJ’s path has not been perfect, but what I know from firsthand contact with that system is that its efforts have been earnest and significant. And while there have been horrible incidents of misconduct by staff, each has been met with an appropriate response by DJJ to address the behavior and ensure that it does not recur. At the same time, DJJ’s leadership has not wavered in its commitment to improve the overall system and how it serves youth, including the prevention of delinquent behavior.

What we know about system change is that it takes time. In Missouri, for instance, it took decades of commitment to a therapeutic approach to develop a juvenile justice system that is now recognized as one of the best in the country.

This is the change process that is under way in Florida, and we are now seeing improved outcomes as a result. There are significantly fewer youth coming into care, at the same time the general youth population is increasing, and more youth are being served in the community than ever before. DJJ is supporting staff training on important strategies for serving serious and violent offenders, such as trauma-informed approaches. This summer, DJJ completed an 18-month process in partnership with its contracted residential treatment providers to develop strategic plans designed to align practice with what research shows is effective to keep communities safe and achieve positive youth outcomes. The result of these efforts is that rates of reoffending for the youth served by DJJ have been reduced, with recidivism for youth supervised in the community at its lowest level ever.

Indeed, now is the time for Florida’s leadership to build on DJJ's successes and further improve the system by investing in high quality staff, as well as smaller residential placements that are closer to where youth live and can successfully transition back into their communities. DJJ should work with states attorney, law enforcement agencies, and legislators to enforce a zero tolerance policy for the mistreatment of youth in residential care.

DJJ is setting the standard for system reform, including its work around screening and assessment, the use of structured decision-making tools, and data analysis which is positively influencing practice across the country. Indeed, tens of thousands of youth are being well served by the Department of each year.

Is DJJ perfect in its work? No, but it is far better than the Herald’s reporting reflects.

Shay Bilchik is research professor/center director at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. He served formerly as an assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County; and administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U. S. Department of Justice.