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It's a matter of prevention, punishment

When Tony swung his fist at a high school classmate recently, he won the fight.

He also got caught and sent to a program designed to prevent him from breaking the law again.

This program usually works _ more than 90 percent of the kids who go through it stay clean for at least a year. Sound tough? It can be. But it's not prison. It's not caning. It's called juvenile arbitration, and it consists mostly of trying to talk sense into young people who have committed a first offense. The youths in this program can be sent to counseling, drug treatment and group discussions.

Tony (not his real name) was sent to the Pinellas County Jail. Not for a jail sentence, but for a visit. A visit designed to scare him. He walked into jail looking tense but fashionable, his pants riding low. A tall, muscular inmate with his name tattooed on his biceps scoffed at Tony.

"You think you're cool in those baggy pants?" the inmate said, sneering. "They see you wearing that in here and they will pull down your clothes in front of the whole yard. And then they will make you wear some pants that are so tight. Lot of guys who would love you in tight pants."

Tony looked worried as he left.

"It touched me," he said. "I don't ever want to come here."

Programs like this one are at the heart of a debate across Florida, particularly in the governor's race, about how to stop crime. The debate is this: Should we in Florida pay for programs designed to prevent kids from turning to crime in the first place? Or should we simply punish criminals more swiftly and harshly?

The answer is both _ on that, Gov. Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush agree. But in their campaign speeches Chiles focuses more on prevention, and Bush focuses more on punishment. In fact, the issue of prevention is probably one of the biggest differences between Bush and Chiles.

"What we're about is prevention, prevention, prevention," Chiles said at a recent visit to a St. Petersburg church.

In an interview, the Democratic incumbent elaborated: "We're preventing infant deaths and more than that, we're preventing infants from being born in effect defective, with mental and physical handicaps. We're also preventing teenage pregnancies. Every teen pregnancy that you prevent, that's one abortion you don't have, that's one dropout you don't have. It's someone you don't have to get off welfare; it's someone you don't have to build a cell for.

"In effect, what prevention does for hundreds of dollars, it allows you to save thousands of dollars."

Chiles has endorsed a wide range of prevention programs, some of them directly related to crime, some not. One that he is proud of is a $37-million program to keep middle schools open later, so that kids don't end up hanging out on the street corner and getting into trouble.

He also supports prevention programs that are not directly related to crime. For example, he has championed Healthy Start, a program designed to prevent and reduce infant mortality.

Bush, the Republican challenger, sounds a different note. He says he wouldn't pay for the after-school program and would scrap many other Chiles ideas. Bush said he has nothing against prevention programs but would only support those that have been carefully studied and proven to save the taxpayers money.

"Lawton Chiles and the liberals believe that the way to solve our crime problem is at the front end _ forgetting the fact that there has to be a certainty of punishment in life," Bush said at a speech in Daytona Beach last week. "Before we start trying to solve problems on the front end, we have to recognize that if you do something wrong in a free society, something wrong should happen to you."

Areas of prevention

Dominic Calabro runs Florida TaxWatch, which he describes this way: "We're not an ideological group. Our concern is the preservation and better use of Floridians' tax dollars."

It's not the sort of outfit that you'd expect to come out in favor of a bunch of social programs. Calabro, however, said TaxWatch has a long history of supporting prevention programs that prove to be cost effective, and which reduce pain and suffering besides.

"It's the old axiom, an ounce of prevention can often save much more than a pound of cure," Calabro said.

He thinks it makes sense for the state and various community organizations to sponsor programs designed to teach parenting skills _ particularly to those parents who don't have a strong extended family who can help them learn the difficult job of raising a child. These programs can help not only the parent but also the child, he said.

Jack Levine, perhaps the state's most visible child advocate, says the state ought to look at prevention programs as an investment. He said it's important to make sure the state and local communities focus on these areas of prevention:

Providing pregnant women with proper medical care during their pregnancies, and also teaching them nutrition, diet and ways to care for themselves.

Providing immunizations and health screenings.

Providing "family support" programs designed to help parents who are battling problems with substance abuse, or their own temper, and who might be at risk of abusing or neglecting their kids.

Providing high-quality child care, so parents can afford to work instead of choosing welfare, and also so children develop properly.

Some of those programs will reduce crime, and others may not, said Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children & Youth. But the point is that each of them saves money and reduces suffering.

Differing views

Chiles says Healthy Start may be his best single accomplishment as governor. Since starting the program, Florida's traditionally high infant mortality rate has dropped below the national average.

He also said his focus on prevention reduces crime because it involves such programs as putting more resource officers into schools. And instead of expelling disruptive kids from high school _ virtually guaranteeing they'll get involved in crime _ he has backed alternative schools to keep them in the education system.

But he said the state also has to incarcerate kids and adults who commit serious crimes.

Bush isn't sold on all the prevention programs that Chiles backs. "The whole argument that you hear over and over again is that $1 of this program will save $8 in the end," Bush said.

If no one is really monitoring the spending, however, you can't really be sure the taxpayers are saving money, Bush said. If the government can't prove it is saving money through a prevention program, he said, the state should spend its money elsewhere.

Despite the drop in the infant mortality rate, Bush isn't sure Healthy Start is a proven program either. "Healthy Start's too early to tell if the dollar investment is yielding marked improvement," Bush said.

When it comes to programs designed to turn kids away from crime, Bush said they won't work unless kids know they're likely to get punished for breaking the law. "There has to be punishment at the core, at the very core of the whole system," Bush said. "If not, the whole prevention program isn't going to catch hold."

At the speech in Daytona Beach last week, Bush said: ""We're going to save the children that begin a life of crime or implement deviant behavior. We're going to save them if we have a certainty of punishment at the core of our system."

And, he said, "that basic philosophy is so far different than the therapeutic approach offered by the liberals, offered by Lawton Chiles."

Curtis Krueger is a staff writer for the Times. Times Political Editor Ellen Debenport and Times staff writer Kaylois Henry also contributed to this story.