Making DJJ safe
A Times Editorial
Gov. Bush's attitude toward
correcting the Department of
Juvenile Justice's problems is
encouraging. Now he must back it
up with a commitment of
financial and human resources.
Published March 27, 2004
It happens so frequently, we've
almost come to expect it: state
leaders in crisis circling the
wagons instead of admitting problems
and changing course.
That's what makes Gov. Jeb Bush's
recent reaction to criticism of his
Department of Juvenile Justice all
the more refreshing. Bush called the
criticism, by House members
investigating the death of a
teenager in custody, "justified."
It's "exactly what the
Legislature should be doing: in a
fair way, to point out problems,"
Bush said last week.
The governor's support for
uncovering problems is encouraging.
But it is not nearly as important -
or as telling - as the energy he
intends to invest in seeing that
those problems are resolved.
No one can doubt that a solution
is needed, and needed now. Eight
months after 17-year-old Omar
Paisley died in a Miami detention
center from lack of medical
attention, the committee heard
testimony recently about guards at
the same facility who allegedly
tried to cover up their failure to
check on a teen attempting suicide.
DJJ is also reviewing how an
11-year-old in a Palm Beach facility
recently got his wrist broken by a
"It just shows you how deep the
culture is in the department," said
a disgusted Rep. Gus A. Barreiro,
R-Miami Beach, who chairs the House
Select Committee on Juvenile
To his credit, Bush has made some
promising early gestures. After
accepting (if not demanding) the
temporary leave of DJJ Secretary
Bill Bankhead, he brought in C.
George Denman who, like Bush,
acknowledges that DJJ "is not doing
well." Denman did not hesitate in
suspending 14 officers and nurses
whose lapses in the Paisley case
were substantiated by the agency's
inspector general. Bush has also
committed an extra $6.2-million for
staff, medical care and worker
screening in Miami and elsewhere.
But it will take more than that
to correct the problems Barreiro
rightly calls "systemic." Ten of
Florida's 25 juvenile-detention
centers are overcrowded, in part
because too many kids are held there
when community programs that have
proven successful could keep them
and society safer. Overcrowding
leads to an overworked, lean and
stressed staff, encouraged to focus
more on security than treatment. Add
to the mix bad leadership and poor
training and you've got a culture at
DJJ that is dangerous to young
The Paisley grand jury was blunt
in its diagnosis. "Our investigation
has revealed a juvenile justice
system plagued by a lack of
commitment, a lack of supervision, a
lack of guidelines, a lack of proper
structure, and a lack of resources,"
it concluded in January.
The problems at DJJ run deep, and
neither Bush nor lawmakers should
expect to solve them on the fly or
March 27, 2004, 02:10:29]