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Budget knife cuts juvenile programs

Rifle through the archive of recent Florida crises and you will come to 1994, when a series of tourist murders threatened to ruin the state's reputation as a carefree vacation playground.

Angry state lawmakers vowed to fight back at the criminals by creating a new Department of Juvenile Justice and passing a $200-million package that financed everything from prevention programs to juvenile boot camps.

Now, flip ahead to the current Florida crisis, the state budget that won't balance in the wake of a weak economy and terrorist attacks.

Now, the war on juvenile crime is almost forgotten.

The once-touted Department of Juvenile Justice is bracing to lose nearly 12 percent of its budget, one of the biggest proportional cuts to any state agency. The cuts already have led to chaos: The department recently canceled $9-million worth of contracts for counseling and education programs, and on Friday, amid uncertainty about the final cuts, canceled the cancellations.

"There is high irony" that the department spawned by one crisis affecting tourism is now being slashed by another, said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children.

Levine said the programs passed by the Legislature in 1994 helped reduce juvenile crime, but lawmakers seem to have forgotten it. "It's as if they are reading backwards and fail to comprehend that irony."

"How much cuts can you take to juvenile justice before you start impinging on public safety?" asks Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association.

The Legislature is in the midst of trying to cut $1.3-billion from the budget, a shortfall that began with a declining economy and was aggravated by the Sept. 11 attacks that have badly hurt Florida's tourism industry.

Lawmakers recently voted to cut $72-million from the Juvenile Justice department, nearly half the $186-million in cuts assigned to all public safety agencies and courts. These cuts were part of a budget plan that will not take effect, but they will be considered a starting point when legislators reconvene for a second special session Nov. 27. They include:

The loss of 415 positions immediately and 63 more July 1, for a total of 478. The agency also would lose 41 temporary jobs. This amounts to 12.5 percent of the agency's 5,500 budgeted positions, agency spokeswoman Diane Hirth said.

Severe cuts would be made to the victims' services division, begun as part of a reorganization of the department. Those specialists would have matched victims with perpetrators so that children could see the emotional and financial impacts of their crimes.

Some youths sentenced to spend several months in residential programs for "low risk" offenders would instead spend one month in therapy followed by five months of "highly structured, short-term supervision." That will save about $5-million.

A $4.6-million cut in a program called Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services, or CINS/FINS. It helps provide family counseling services for children who are running away from home or having other problems.

"Nobody wanted to cut much out of education or social services," said Bill Bankhead, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice. "One of the few places left to cut was criminal justice, and the Department of Corrections had been cut heavily. I was the only one who apparently hadn't gone through a huge whack. I think that's where they (legislators) were coming from."

Back in the last tourism crisis, lawmakers loved the idea of juvenile boot camps, where a regimen of marching, push-ups, uniforms and sharp control was designed to instill discipline in platoons of out-of-control teenagers.

But last week, Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder was wondering if he would be able to keep his boot camp open, even though it has been rated as one of the most effective rehabilitation centers for juvenile delinquents in Florida.

Here is why: The Legislature wanted to cut $9-million worth of "aftercare" programs, which provide education and counseling for youths who have been just released from several months in rehabilitation centers.

The cuts in aftercare were set to go into effect Dec. 1. Bankhead said he needed to give 30-day notice before canceling contracts, and he did so on Oct. 30, even though the budget wasn't final, and he did not yet know whether the cuts would be enacted.

Sheriff Crowder and others got a reprieve Friday when Bankhead reversed his decision to cancel the contracts, deciding to await the Legislature's final action. But because lawmakers have to make additional budget cuts, it is possible that Juvenile Justice will lose even more money, meaning Crowder's aftercare money still would disappear.

"The people who are swinging that ax up there . . . know very little and are very naive about what happens at the head end of that ax when it strikes the stone," Crowder said.

Even if the aftercare cuts do not go through, Bob Weaver is worried about what the uncertainty means for his employees. Weaver is chief executive officer of the Tampa-based Associated Marine Institutes, which had braced to lose more than $5-million in aftercare contracts at several facilities, including the Pinellas Marine Institute on St. Pete Beach.

"If our employees don't have any security, it'll be very difficult for us to attract the kind of talent that we've historically attracted," Weaver said.

The $4.6-million cut to the CINS/FINS program is prompting worries for runaway shelters and counseling centers that use the money to help troubled teenagers.

"They will be challenged to deal with it, but I think those organizations can continue to operate," Bankhead said.

But Tiffany Winchell is worried.

She's a 17-year-old student at East Lake High School and recently got a report card with a 3.67 GPA _ all A's and one C, good enough for the honor roll. But only a couple of years ago, she was struggling. As a student at Tarpon Springs High School, she was filled with "my own self-doubt, my own insecurities."

Her report card came back with a 0.33 grade point average. She wanted to drop out. But instead, she skipped school, "just hanging out in the bathroom because I didn't want to conform to my teachers."

A close friend of hers died and two friendships dissolved into arguments, making her feel even lower.

She and her mother, Lucie, both give credit to counselor Russ Porter for helping her gain control of her life. Porter works for Family Resources in Pinellas County, one of the agencies that would face cuts under the current plans.

Tiffany and Mrs. Winchell both were disturbed at the news that more than $4-million could be cut from statewide funding for CINS/FINS.

If the cuts go through, "we may have to close one of our family counseling offices" and cut back on other programs, said Pat Gerard, Family Resources' vice president for programs.

The agency has two offices for family counseling, one in St. Petersburg and one in Largo. The agency also may have to begin charging for the counseling it now offers free.

Mrs. Winchell said the cuts "would be a tragedy. I believe that there would be more children that would wind up on the streets, there would be more children that would wind up on drugs, or in illegal activity."

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