MAXWELL:  Forum on youth crime was laced with irony

10/2/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Four middle-aged men chatted in the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel River Walk. One was describing a tense moment he’d experienced during his morning jog along Biscayne Boulevard.

“I got to this one area and saw this group of tough-looking kids,” he said. “I mean, I’m a cop, and they made me want to run like hell.”

He and his companions laughed, self-consciously. An obvious irony had been created by the relationship between the story’s meaning, the men’s professions and their reason for being here. According to their name tags, the other three included a judge, a state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services official and a public school administrator. They were here as delegates to the Juvenile Justice Forum, a brain-storming confab on juvenile crime that mustered 130 hand-picked professionals in the field, community leaders and others from around the state.

As I sat through sessions on reducing juvenile crime, listened to top-ranked state officials, including the governor, and interviewed experts and delegates, I couldn’t forget the irony of that cop’s experience. It caused me to notice other ironies, some good, some bad, overshadowing the summit.

A significant irony _ perhaps the forum’s best feature _ was that for the first time at the state level, the various groups charged with helping juveniles met amicably. Until now, these efforts had fallen into what one organizer of the event called “bludgeons,” with players defending their turfs at all costs.

Decades of such discord brought juvenile justice in Florida to the brink of disaster. Consider the observations of Judge Gary Crippen, whose ideas inspired conference organizers: “The problem with helping systems is that there are no systems. There are no uniform policies pursued by the thousands of public and private agencies created to deal with personal and family problems. Social welfare pursuits are undertaken by a hodgepodge of public groups: in the executive, judicial and legislative departments of government . . . and by countless service and advocacy groups in the private sector.”

This fractiousness among problem-solving groups is self-defeating. The results, Crippen argues, are that: “Necessary actions are delayed or overlooked; courts make unrealistic decisions; policies are employed that are more harmful than helpful, and resources are wasted pursuing these policies; agents perform ineptly; court orders are not followed. In the end, people are hurt and public funds are spent foolishly.”

The conference was a bold attempt to harness the state’s competing interests to fight a common problem. As the delegates created the “guiding principles” intended to drive the policies of the new Department of Juvenile Justice, another irony surfaced. As sincere as they were, many delegates were unable to write in language that a crime-weary public can easily understand. After all, the new bureaucracy was created in part to appease public outrage, and this same public needs to know what’s going on.

Decipher this guiding principle: “Services provided to youth and families need to be based on theory or effective models and incorporate quality improvement processes and outcome indicators to provide effective services and maximize resources. Juvenile programs should be periodically evaluated internally and externally to review both short- and long-term effectiveness, relevance and replicability of the program. Ineffective programs will be terminated.”

Another irony of the summit was that many of the social workers, who are trained to be empathetic, were working with attorneys and law enforcement officers, who are trained to be adversarial. On the surface, this was a good mix because the ultimate goal of the forum was to have these strange bedfellows reach consensus on the guiding principles.

But I grew uneasy after seeing a sheriff _ one of the more than 30 officially supporting Jeb Bush for governor _ nodding approval for a guiding principle saturated with the fuzzy-huggy that Bush vows to remove from juvenile justice if he’s elected. Come to think of it, all but one of the law enforcement people I spoke with support Bush, who sees road work and prison beds as the solution to juvenile crime.

The forum’s most glaring irony? It had only two teenagers, a 17-year-old girl and an 18-year-old boy, as delegates. An event whose purpose was to find ways to best serve young offenders could’ve benefited from the advice of a diverse group of teenagers.

Was the conference successful? Yes. Because, if nothing else, even with its many contradictions, it brought into clear focus the necessity of establishing a united front to save our children.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.

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