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‘The kids aren’t alright’ warns Ron DeSantis public safety team

The Governor-elect Ron DeSantis‘ transition-based public safety panel convened Thursday with juvenile crime and incarceration the topic du jour.

The 45-person panel is stacked with law enforcement professionals, as well as civilians impacted by the Parkland tragedy. 

The first major topic: juvenile crime. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion was the kids aren’t alright (building on contentions made a week prior).

Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard noted that “juvenile crime is the biggest issue we face.”

“This ‘give them a pick-me-up hug’ simply isn’t working,” Ivey said, noting that “we have to get back to saying we’re going to hold them accountable and there’s going to be consequences for their actions.”

Max Schacter noted that Parkland killer Nikolas Cruz was an example of a kid who slipped through the cracks, with programs in “silos” blocking cops from making determinations to arrest “violent juveniles” currents in diversionary efforts.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd noted that recidivism is an issue, pointing to metrics that classify avoiding it as going a year between crimes, creating “a success story where there weren’t any at all.”

“We’ve fallen short,” Judd said, “on these really bad actors.”

Concerns were also raised about facilities.

“Riots … sexual batteries and physical batteries [on staff] … we’re just starting to really doubt the management of the facilities,” asserted Graham Fountain, the chair of Okaloosa County Commission, regarding residential programs for juveniles in his county.

Private operators run all these programs.

Christy Brodeur, former Secretary of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, noted that things are better than they were eight years ago, especially regarding managing “prolific offenders.”

“We were putting things in place to deal with that more serious, chronic population of kids,” Brodeur said. “We’ve got a really solid base to grow upon.”

Florida Sheriff’s Association head Mark Hunter of Columbia County lamented school districts not wanting to work with law enforcement, as part of a range of concerns over lack of “timely information” on wayward juveniles.

People get arrested then recruited into gangs, Hunter said.

“If we’re going to be tasked with raising children, and we are because it’s not happening at home,” Hunter said, “intervention programs” can offer a “shot” at helping children without models.

Steve Zona, of Jacksonville’s Fraternal Order of Police, seconded Hunter.

“We need to catch them earlier, fifth to seventh grade,” Zona noted, adding that police officers need resources and discretion to make arrests in schools if needed.

From juvenile justice, the conversation on age soon progressed to adult incarceration, where Florida Department of Corrections head Julie Jones likened the facilities housing Florida’s 96,000 inmates to “small cities.”

Staff recruitment and retention are pressures, Jones said, as the department deals with “challenges” relative to the “business of incarceration.”

Jones had backup from one union head.

“The pay is lower than anywhere in the country,” said John Kazanjian, Florida Police Benevolent Association President. “People have to work on their off days because [staffing] is so short.”

Literacy deficits in prisons: another concern, per State Attorney Bernie McCabe. Even when Gov. Charlie Crist was first elected, 60 percent of incoming inmates were functionally illiterate.

Derrick Schofield, an executive vice-president for GEO Continuum of Care and GEO Reentry Services, noted the goal “is to have [inmates] return home better than they came in.”

“Cognitive behavior treatment,” said Scofield, is a key “education piece” for successful rehabilitation and “making the best use of your money.”

Judd cautioned that “with all of the talk, it’s easy to forget … people locked up in prison” aren’t committing crimes.

“Keep the 85 percent rule in place,” Judd said, and keep these inmates (specifically, the three percent of those arrested who go to state prison) locked up.

Criminal justice reform, a hot topic nationally, got an aspirational look at the end of the call, with DeSantis policy director James Blair stressing the importance of putting reforms in the context of Florida’s own experiences and statistics as they progress.

The final call for this group: next Thursday, with plan to focus on school safety.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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