1. Opinion

Preventive approach does justice to juveniles, society

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice has figured out the difference between going soft on crime and getting ahead of it.

The department is embarking on a new approach that calls for shifting more tax money away from incarceration and other last-ditch options and toward early intervention efforts that try to steer children away from crime. Called the "Roadmap to System Excellence," the strategy could be a national model for curbing juvenile crime and for giving children a reasonable and meaningful chance to recover from a mistake.

The justice system metes out lesser penalties to juveniles because child offenders often lack the maturity level of their adult counterparts to recognize the consequences of their acts. The department's new approach applies this sound principle in a forward-looking way. It would shift resources from residential and other restrictive settings to front-end programs that work to keep a child from entering the justice system. These services could range from job training and educational opportunities to interim housing, family support or transportation services.

Violent offenders and those who pose a threat to public safety would still be subject to serious sanctions. But that represents only a small portion of juvenile offenders. Crime by juveniles is down 35 percent since 2008, and more than half of the 58,000 arrested last year were charged with misdemeanors. Officials want to expand the use of so-called civil citations, a program that diverts nonviolent, first-time offenders into a regimen that includes both sanctions and services. The offenders can make restitution, perform community service and receive counseling to address everything from anger management to larger problems with their home life, school or social circle. Addressing a child's behavioral problems and sparing him or her the barriers that come with a criminal record can turn around a life and save taxpayers money at the same time.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters succeeded with this approach as director of juvenile services in Miami-Dade County. In introducing the strategy to the public and to state lawmakers in the coming weeks, she will need to explain how intervening early can turn children around, curb recidivism and allow the state to focus its most costly sanctions — from jail to residential programs — on the violent offenders who are the highest risk to public safety. Local police and prosecutors need to be more open to this approach and more consistent in applying the least restrictive terms for correcting juvenile behavior. Jail will always be an option. The opportunity here is to slow the cycle that leads so many to grow up and remain in the justice system.