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Chris Timmons: Governor ignores his one big success story

It’s working!

No, not Gov. Rick Scott’s economic incentives program, which Scott is pushing relentlessly (to the detriment to his credibility: little does Scott care) and receiving much resistance from state lawmakers.

It loses money, doesn’t bring jobs, and has a total of $140 million in escrow accounts. Yet the governor asks for an additional $250 million!

It’s working!

No, not Gov. Rick Scott’s fetish for tax cuts, which is receiving much resistance from state lawmakers. The governor wants $1 billion, saying it gives businesses flexibility should an economic downturn be around the corner. (An odd case for a robotically cheerful salesman of Florida’s economy to make, no?) But with budget-consuming entitlement programs in need of more money, lawmakers are saying: “No, way, Scotty!”

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It’s working!

No, not Gov. Rick Scott’s transportation policy, which places a great burden on cities – leaving policy to a hodgepodge of special interests, and nothing resembling a plan for the state’s congested highways and roadways.

Scott is not a failure, at least in one area. Though he’s not at all interested in bragging about it, the state’s juvenile justice system is improving under his watch.

Since 1994, the state has had two departments concerned with the welfare of the state’s children and adolescents, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

DCF is always in the news. Rarely, though, is DJJ. That’s not necessarily an ode to DJJ’s flawless bureaucratic approach.
But since it unveiled its “Roadmap to System Excellence” under its previous secretary in 2013, Wansley Walters, a veteran administrator out of Miami and now a lobbyist with Ballard Partners in Tallahassee, DJJ has been making remarkable progress in perfecting its delivery of important services and handling of the state’s deadliest youth.

What the “Roadmap,” as it’s called by its crafters, sought to accomplish is the renovation of the state’s old school model of emphasizing detention, instead of prevention.

Over the years, there was a war of ideas, between those who thought a “tough on crime” or “zero tolerance” approach was best to ensure public safety, and those who understood the subtleties of the adolescent mind.

That is to say, adolescents are really at extreme ends: either a Tom Sawyer or Holden Caulfield. Either, moreover, pranksters out having a good time or extremely alienated and in desperate need of help.

There has to be a balance in how the state deals with either. The experts got together and came up with a national initiative, the Juvenile Justice System Improvement Project (JJSIP), in 2011, and Florida is one of the leading states, involved.

Thus, we have the “Roadmap.” Its emphasis on finding out and then remedying – that is, preventing – young people from becoming part of the “deep end” (the worst of the worst) is a miracle project of state government. It takes a combination of different groups, state government and churches and schools and community centers, to make this new prevention model work. And it’s working.

More than five years ago, according to Christina K. Daly, the new secretary of DJJ in a Tampa Tribune op-ed,  there were more than 75,000 young people arrested. Today, it’s down to 30,000. Furthermore, juvenile arrests are at their lowest in 30 years.

The rate of “recidivism,” a fancy term for going back to the swagger of crime, is at 5 percent.

Five percent, to be precise, for those young people who are “first-time offenders” and are unlikely take to the romantic aspects of criminal life as a career, if DJJ prevention programs can get to them first.

One such program is the Civil Citations program, which aims to give consequences (say, restitution or community service), without imperiling the dreams and ambitions of youth for youth’s stupid mistakes.

Moreover, such programs are especially beneficial to black youngsters, since they’re a significant clientele of DJJ: Although black youth (boys and girls) are 21 percent of the population, they are 40 percent of the state’s juvenile justice system. DJJ calls it “disproportionate minority contact” or DMC.

The rest of us would call it a great tragedy.

Like any bureaucracy composed of experts, DJJ has the answers – but not all. It still battles with those young people who become implacably hardcore.

Still, it’s working.

Still, it’s the little-noticed success of Rick Scott’s administration.

Would only he’d talk it up as relentlessly as he does faulty corporate welfare packages to Fortune 500 companies.

Chris Timmons is a native Floridian, bird-watcher, editorial columnist, and fellow with the James Madison Institute. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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