The state will develop new policies for juvenile boot camps, including how rough guards can be, the head of the state Department of Juvenile Justice said Wednesday.
The proposed changes will include better medical screening of inmates and uniform training of guards.
In his first public remarks since the death of a teenager, Anthony Schembri said boot camps are a "proven crime prevention method" and should remain open.
"What's good gets better. What's bad gets gone," Schembri said, one day after Bay County's sheriff said he would close the Panama City camp where guards roughed up a teenager who later died.
Schembri met for about 40 minutes Wednesday with Gov. Jeb Bush, who also has rejected calls for the immediate closing of boot camps. Schembri revealed few specifics about the proposed revamping, saying he needed to talk with sheriffs who run the programs.
The bid to save boot camps comes as the Legislature begins debate on the future of the camps, amid growing signs of their vulnerability.
"The burden of proof is on boot camps to prove they need to be kept around," said House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City. "This was a 1990s phenomenon; is it still a good thing to do?"
On Tuesday, Sheriff Frank McKeithen said he would close within 90 days the boot camp where 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was kneed, kicked and punched by a half dozen or more guards.
The teenager died the next day, Jan. 6, in a Pensacola hospital.
But it was not until two lawmakers saw a video showing the beating that the case drew widespread attention.
Scrutiny grew more intense when a medical examiner said last week that Martin died of internal bleeding caused by a rare blood disorder, and not physical abuse.
The decision in Bay County leaves Florida with four boot camps, though a Martin County facility will close this summer due to funding issues.
Department of Juvenile Justice officials said Wednesday there is no current plan to seek other contracts with sheriff's offices.
Twenty-two youths are in the Bay County program and 12 are scheduled to complete it on March 7. The remaining 10 would be placed into other "moderate risk" programs, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
McKeithen said he would replace the boot camp with a schoollike program for youths who have not been arrested "but are on a road which, without intervention, will result in them becoming embroiled in our legal system."
Normally effusive, Schembri had been silent on the issue until Wednesday, even missing a legislative workshop on boot camps last week. He said he did not want to comment on an ongoing investigation.
But he said he felt strongly about the boot camps as a concept.
"For some kids this is an option," he said. "It strips away the attitudes and values" that got them in trouble in the first place.
He dodged a question whether he supported what McKeithen said was a necessary move given the controversy surrounding the Bay County camp.
"That's his decision," Schembri said.
Schembri also declined to say who else was at the meeting with Bush. He reached out by phone Wednesday to at least one sheriff, Pinellas' Jim Coats.
Coats, through a spokesman, said he too found value in boot camps but "that does not mean it will not take another form in the future in order to best serve the youthful offenders in the area."
Among the areas the Department of Juvenile Justice will look at are age requirements for boot camps, currently 14 to 17; medical screening (a physical did not reveal Martin's blood disorder); and use of force. Policies vary among the boot camps and guards have more latitude to use force than in other juvenile detention areas.
"I think there should be a uniform guideline in how they're all trained," Schembri said.
He said that after taking the job in May 2004, he eliminated a chair that was in some cases used in restraints, and closed down a girls boot camp in Polk County because he didn't think it was meeting the needs of the girls.
"We had girls that were urinating in their pants," he said, adding that eight out of 20 met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Also Wednesday, the medical examiner who performed Martin Anderson's autopsy acknowledged glaring mistakes in past reports, including one that said a woman had male genitalia.
But he attributed the errors to a clerk who transcribed his audio notes.
Dr. Charles F. Siebert also reasserted his ruling that Martin died of the blood disorder, known as sickle cell trait, and said he was confident it would stand up to additional scrutiny.
It is possible Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, whom Gov. Bush chose to take over the death investigation after a Panhandle prosector asked to be recused due to close ties with Sheriff McKeithen, could have a new medical exam done.
"I'm not really worried about it," Siebert said.
Siebert drove to Tallahassee on Tuesday to renew his medical license after the St. Petersburg Times and other news organizations reported it had expired Jan. 31, before he signed off on Anderson's autopsy.
"Honestly," he said, "I never got the renewal notice."
Representatives of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition will be going to Panama City on Saturday to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of Anderson, according to group spokeswoman Jerry Thomas.
Coalition founder the Rev. Jesse Jackson will not be among the group.
Jackson has said he has the sickle trait, a gene anomaly doctors say is found in one 12 black people. "Sickle cell doesn't kill," Jackson said in a statement. "Beatings kill you."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Abbie VanSickle contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.