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Officials brainstorm on crime, juveniles

Don't expect dramatic results from the state's newly installed Juvenile Justice Department, at least not at first.

"People are going to want instant things to happen," said Attorney General Bob Butterworth. "We have to find a way to make it as instant as possible."

Butterworth spoke at an informal forum Monday attended by a group of Pinellas County police chiefs and law enforcement officials at the Sheriff's Office administration building in Largo. The meeting was an idea session, where Butterworth and local police chiefs, court officials and authorities discussed the three-week-old program in specific, and law enforcement in general.

The group of about 15 people, led by Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, agreed that the new department would go a long way toward helping deal with juvenile offenders. But it will not curb juvenile crime completely, said Tom Lange, St. Pete Beach police chief. Ultimately, controlling youngsters is still in the hands of their parents and they should know this, he said.

"Nothing we can do can make up for what the parents aren't doing," Lange said. "We have limited contact with these kids. We can't straighten them out."

The new federal crime bill also was mulled over at the forum. While most were happy it would bring needed crime-fighting dollars into the state, some felt the emphasis was wrong.

"What we need in Florida, in my view, isn't more police officers," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "We can arrest everyone. The issue is what to do with them once we arrest them."

Rice agreed. What good are more police officers on the street if the court system is releasing criminals too early or waiting too long to lock them up? he asked.

"I think this is the first time I can remember in policing that we are saying that more officers is not the answer."

The group also complained of having to foot the bill for prisoners that the state and the federal government asks local law enforcement agencies to hold. The federal government pays Pinellas County $32 per day for each inmate, yet holding them costs much more, Rice said. County taxpayers also have to foot the medical bills for these new inmates, he said.

Butterworth suggested the counties negotiate better prices with the federal and state governments, requiring that they at least pay medical expenses for the prisoners they send.

The meeting took place at the behest of Butterworth, who was in Pinellas County on business. He said the biggest concern of law enforcement authorities is ensuring that the new juvenile justice program produces results, not rhetoric.

"They don't want it to be a paper tiger," Butterworth said. "We need to make sure the new legislation works."

Rice said he wanted to make sure Butterworth would continue to be an advocate for local law authorities while in Tallahassee.

"I think this is good that the state attorney general is in a position to help us get things changed," Rice said. "He has been helpful before. He shares many of our views on things like liberal operations jails and stopping the revolving prison door."

Treasure Island Police Chief Joe Pelkington said that fighting juvenile crime will take time, perhaps more than some are willing to spend.

"People need to make more of an investment in it," Pelkington said. "But I am not sure our political system will allow it. Everyone expects results right away. But this will take a long time."