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"Monticello fever'

Four teenagers were charged with killing a British tourist last September in Monticello, some 26 miles from the state capital, and Florida lawmakers are responding as politicians often do. They are looking for a quick, salable solution that will make people think the state is safe from violent, dangerous teenagers.

So they are, in the grand tradition of government "reform," reorganizing a state agency.

In creating a separate agency to deal with juvenile crime, though, the state Legislature is simply masking the problem. Whether juvenile justice programs reside in the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the Department of Corrections or in their own separate agency, the core reality is that a younger generation of Floridians is growing up in circumstances that are leading it increasingly to crime and to shocking violence. The number of juvenile crimes has doubled in the past decade, up to 140,468 last year, and the shooting in Monticello is but another reminder that younger and younger children are turning to deadly violence.

Lawmakers who weren't looking first to cast blame on others might have realized the more systemic ways in which the state has failed to help _ how it has not focused on providing the tools for communities to build strong families, for children to learn, and for students to become productive members of the workforce. In a more narrow sense, the state has refused even to pay for enough places to lock up the kids who have failed.

The attack on HRS, in this case, is more than a little disingenuous. Those who criticize HRS for being too "soft" on juvenile criminals might look at the budget that lawmakers write. Up until recently, the Legislature provided enough money for only 1,600 beds to house the toughest young criminals; last year, though, 13,000 kids committed crimes serious enough to qualify. The state attorneys who have been clamoring to put more juveniles in the adult justice system to "get tough" on them might also note the reality: Of 4,700 juveniles who were certified into the adult system last year, only 1,700 got any time in jail; of those, the average was roughly 30 days.

If there were simple solutions available, the state would already have employed them. But the real truth is that Florida has a mess on its hands. It needs to begin building a stronger future for the children who are born today, and it has to deal, as best it can, with the teenagers it may already have lost.

Jim Towey, the new HRS secretary, puts it about right. If creating a new agency would resolve Florida's dilemma with juvenile criminals, Towey says, then the state government ought to do it. But Towey knows better, and so do self-respecting state legislators. The juvenile justice system has endured three organizational changes in three years, and the most recent one, adopted last year, has actually begun to produce some positive results. For lawmakers to suggest this year that the answer is to create a separate juvenile justice agency is particularly dishonest.

Towey calls it "Monticello fever." Floridians have come to know it as politics as usual.