Wansley Walters was a headstrong kid, full of sass and ready for a fight.
Which might explain how she ended up Friday as Gov.-elect Rick Scott's choice to take charge of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
"As a child, I was in trouble every day of my life and I never understood how it happened," said Walters, 57, head of the Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Department. "I see so much of that in juvenile justice that I feel great passion for these kids who find themselves in these situations."
Walters, who lives in Miami Shores but will relocate to Tallahassee, will be the first woman to lead the department.
In a statement, Scott called Walters "one of the country's leading juvenile justice reformers." He said Walters' successes include reducing Miami-Dade's juvenile arrests by 51 percent, re-arrests by 80 percent and juvenile detention 66 percent in the past 10 years while saving the county $33 million every year.
"She's probably the most qualified person in the entire state to lead the Department of Juvenile Justice," said Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez. "If she can make some of those innovative practices that we've tried in Miami work throughout the state, I think that bodes well for all of us."
Walters spearheaded the effort to open a juvenile assessment center in 1997 that developed a civil citation program that deals with first-time juvenile offenders by diverting them to counseling and doesn't land them in handcuffs. She also has paid special attention to offenders under age 12. Recently, her department started a program tracks misdemeanor offenders through a bracelet with a Global Positioning System rather than putting them in a detention center.
"The vast majority of these children are not serious criminals," Walters said. "And many of them have issues in their lives that we have found in Miami that if you address them as soon as you find out they're at risk, or after they've gotten in trouble, you literally can keep them from going deeper into the system."
Walters helmed Scott's juvenile justice transition team, which issued a report that suggested many of the reforms already tested in Miami.
Walters will replace Frank Peterman, who became secretary in 2008 and resigned earlier this month. He had come under fire for taking taxpayer-funded trips between Tallahassee and his St. Petersburg home.
Scott's appointment of Walters earned praise from those working in the criminal justice system as well as outside groups like Florida TaxWatch. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman said she couldn't think of anyone better to run the department.
"I think that she changed the face of juvenile justice in South Florida by putting an emphasis on where it needs to be: keeping children out of the juvenile justice system and providing services to them and their families," Lederman said.
Miami Herald staff writer Carol Marbin Miller and the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.