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Tallahassee butts in

Published Oct. 6, 2005

It perhaps could be proved, despite such contradictory evidence as the crime and school dropout rates, that Florida's Legislature provides the state with wise, unerring, farsighted leadership.

You'd have a heck of a time, though, selling that idea to the people I visited Monday morning at the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center, a state facility administered by the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

I went there primarily out of curiosity, to see how the staff would cope if the Legislature, in its infinite wisdom, should ban television, radios and athletic equipment from the state's 20 detention centers.

The Senate's juvenile justice bill, as it came out of one committee, contained this bizarre instruction:

"The Legislature intends that a juvenile found to have committed a delinquent act understands the consequences and the serious nature of such behavior. .


. A detention facility may not have televisions, radios, audioplayers of any kind, basketball courts, weight-lifting equipment, or other amenities. Exercise shall be structured and calisthenic and aerobic in nature. A maximum of time spent in a detention facility shall be devoted to educational training, therapy and other types of personal self-motivation and development."

Trouble is, a detention facility is, by legal definition, primarily a place to hold children awaiting trial before they're found to have committed whatever they're charged with. The average stay is eight days, though some have remained as long as 45. Afterward, they're sent to training schools, boot camps or other long-term programs. (It doesn't happen often, but some are even found not guilty.) Many have serious personality or emotional problems that tax all the skills and insights of the center's overworked staff. They are, moreover, still children _ a fact seemingly forgotten by the senators who voted to subject them to a harsher regimen than sentenced adult criminals.

Any legislator who thinks that's good institutional management policy ought to have to work in a detention center some long, hot weekend. I asked David W. Nieboer, the Pinellas center's superintendent, whether any legislators have ever even visited the place. Not in five years, he said, although Sen. Charles Crist, R-St. Petersburg, dropped by before his election in 1992.

How about "therapy and other types of personal self-motivation and development"?

The Pinellas County School Board sends teachers, but there is nothing even remotely resembling long-term counseling or guidance.

"We're not allowed to provide rehabilitation services, because our kids are not "guilty' of anything," Nieboer explained.

A second Senate committee toned down the bill to permit TVs, radios and audioplayers "as a reward for good behavior" and to omit any direct ban on basketball courts and weight-lifting equipment. How the bill will read when it emerges from the Senate floor is anyone's guess. But even the milder version, Nieboer explained, could foul up older detention centers which, unlike his, wouldn't have the space to separate kids with TV privileges from those without. At the Pinellas facility, they don't watch a lot of it anyhow _ an hour or less on weeknights. Movies are shown as rewards for good behavior. On weekends, the kids who have no visitors usually go to the dayrooms to watch sports.

But of course it probably does not occur to our legislators that some of these poor kids have no family to visit them. Nor that the center has no nurse on duty nights and weekends, which means that staffers without medical credentials are administering medications and responding to illnesses, accidents and the not-infrequent self-inflicted injuries. (This is a monster lawsuit waiting to happen.) Nor that the center is seriously understaffed. Nor that its support personnel _ clerical and kitchen staff, mainly _ are so poorly paid as to qualify for food stamps. Nor that the staff who work with kids run the same risks as adult correctional officers, with sprained backs, broken noses and missing teeth often to show for it, but for only a fraction of the pay and with none of the high-hazard pension benefits as their favored peers. Nor that the new Pinellas center, supposedly a state-of-the-art facility, is fraught with security risks and environmental nightmares. (Even average noise levels could make it impossible for a staffer to hear and respond to an emergency.) Nor that perceived tensions between the center staff and HRS district headquarters are seriously hurting staff morale.

As I toured the facility with one of Nieboer's supervisors, an engaging young ex-Marine named Terence Bascom, I marveled at whatever it is that makes people like him keep going in the face of the indifference legislators display when, from afar and on high, they presume to tell the center's staff how to do their jobs.

It can't be for the money. It must be for the kids.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.