Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Florida Juveniles Get Lost among Transfer Shuffle, Extending Stays in Wasting Money

Florida Juveniles Get Lost among Transfer Shuffle, Extending Stays in
Wasting Money

By David M. Reutter

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) regularly transfers its
wards among several programs, resulting in extended terms of incarceration,
which has unnecessarily cost taxpayers $20 million.

The transfers caused under-age offenders to restart a treatment program.
Critics decry a greater harm. The theft of adolescents that results in
juveniles remaining in a sometimes - violent environment long after they
should have been sent home.

The violence is not always at the hands of fellow residents. Often it is
at the hands of DJJ authorize theft. Since 1996, DJJ has been the most
egregious abuser of children in Florida was 661 confirmed cases of child
abuse and neglect.

Uncertain Custody Limits

Florida's criminal justice system treats children much different than its
adults. That system sentences adults to a specified sentence to be served
in jail or prison with a small portion clipped off for good behavior, in
most cases.

Juveniles, however, have no set sentence. Under the juvenile system, a
judge determines whether a child should be committed into DJJ's custody.
The commitment is not considered punishment, but is supposed to be for
treatment of the child's problems. The judge decides whether the child
goes into a treatment program that is for low-, moderate-, or a
maximum-risk offenders.

After being committed to DJJ's custody, virtually all decisions concerning
the child are made by DJJ, including how long the child will remain in custody.

On any given day, 6,500 to 6,600 children are in DJJ's 160 plus programs,
which are designed to last from weeks, months, or years. Most children go
home after eight months. Those that are transferred among programs are
held much longer.

The problem with a transfer is that the child is required to start anew
upon arrival at the next program. There is no credit for time served or
progress made at the previous program.

One example uncovered by the Orlando Sentinel concerned a 12-year-old boy
arrested in Palm Beach County. DJJ placed him in a group-treatment home
for low-risk offenders on March 3, 1999. Four months later, DJJ moved him
to another low-risk program in Orange County. After staying there are
seven months, he was moved to a group home Brevard County. After six
months there, he was released. All told, he served 17 months for an
offense a judge concluded should have sent him into a four-month program.

Whether they're new to the system or to a program, children start at the
bottom. If they behave, they can earn more privileges. The result
transferee is they start at the bottom every time they are transferred. A
child transferred four months into a six month program must start over at
the new program, resulting in 10 months of treatment.

The Sentinel sound of that, from July 8, 1998 through June 2003, DJJ made
4,170 transfers involving 3,631 children. Nearly 390 juveniles or
transferred more than once, five were moved four times.

Assistant DJJ Secretary, Charles Chervanik provided the varying reasons
for the transfers. Six of 10 transfer children are moved because providers
cannot control their behavior despite having rules spelling out how to
control youngsters who act out or become violent. Three of 10 are moved
for more specialized treatment, including substance abuse or mental
illness. The remainder are transferred because the program ceases to
exist. The reason is usually the contractor click was fired by DJJ.

While Chervanik says not all children must start over at the new program,
a state auditor who investigated DJJ found starting over is a given for
those transferred.

Extended Stays Caused Mental Deterioration

Extended stays can make residents in DJJ programs angry and more
difficult to handle, says Paul DeMuro, a senior consultant to the Annie E.
Casey Foundation, a Baltimore organization that gives away millions of
dollars each year to programs for juvenile offenders.

The question arises of whether the treatment" itself is adversely
affecting the children committed into DJJ's custody.

You are going to hear there are high rates of kids in the system with
mental-health problems," said former Broward County Circuit Judge Frank
Orlando, who handle juvenile-delinquency matters for 12 years, now serves
as director of the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Nova
Southeastern University's law school. Many, many of those kids develop
mental-health problems inside the system."

The known physical and mental abuse wrought upon DJJ's wards are a large
factor in creating angry and difficult wards.

Michael Wiltsie died on February 5, 2000, after being crushed by a
320-pound counselor who is trying to calm the boy by pinning him to the
ground at a facility near Ocala.

To control children, counselors use the hammerlock, a hold in which they
twist in offenders arm behind the back and lift. DJJ ordered the
hammerlock's use to cease after it resulted in several children's arms
being broken.

Commitment to DJJ's custody has drove at least three children to suicide.
Shawn D. Smith, 13, hanged himself on October 29, 2001 at the Volusia
Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

Chad Franza, 16, used his bootstraps to hang himself at a boot camp
operated by the Polk County Sheriff's Office on August 17, 1998.

The most disturbing, and perhaps preventable death, was that of Anthony
Dumas, 15. Anthony tried to hang himself at a contractor-run home for
troubled youths in Broward County in 2000. When employee Sandra Trotter
found him, she didn't pull him down and start CPR. Instead, she grabbed a
camera and took pictures.

Anthony died four months later from his injuries. Trotter was convicted
on March 17, 2004, of child neglect.

Rampant Privatization

Eight of 10 juveniles are any long-term facilities. DJJ operates 18
programs, the other 149 are operated by the private contractors. For 2005,
DJJ expects to spend $290 million on a residential treatment force under
age of vendors. On average, taxpayers expand $85 to $144 per offender for
every day each is confined.

In 2002, moderate-risk juveniles who completed their treatment without
being transferred spent, on average, 238 days in the system. Same category
risks transfers resulted in about a 50 percent longer stay, costing the
state an additional $9,900 each. Transfers cost taxpayers an extra $20.3
million over the last five years.

Despite a DJJ report that found two-thirds of its programs for high- and
maximum-risk offenders in 2004 flunked or received D's on a department
report card on their cost effectiveness, 87 percent of DJJ's programs are
still operated by private contractors.

Some of these programs house up to 350 juveniles. It's just impossible
to the effectively either punish or treat children in large institutions,"
said Claudia Wright, professor at the Levin College of Law at the
University of Florida. They are just throwing money absolutely down a rat

Transfers sometimes punish youngsters when the real failure is with the
program, said DeMuro, the Casey Foundation consultant. DJJ has closed 20
programs over the last three years, some for performing poorly.

Reducing Transfers

Critics say the transfers are unfair. If you're handling that level of
transfers, then the department is making very poor decisions at the front
and in matching children with programs," says Marie Osborne, chief of the
juvenile division at the Miami-Dade County Public Defender's Office. Or
the programs are not living up to what they should be doing. You just
can't have that many kids transferred."

DJJ says it is working with its contractors to reduce the number of
transfers, citing 92 denials of transfer requests from March to December
2004. One other reasons transfers are down is that DJJ began evaluating
offenders more thoroughly before they were first committed to a program,
says Ann Pilsbury, a DJJ department manager who reviews transfer requests.

DJJ transfers will be under scrutiny for the foreseeable future. I want
to investigate this further," said Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge, Scott
M. Berstein, who was recently reappointed by Florida's Supreme Court to a
committee studying families and children. I'm going to take this to my
statewide panel and begin my own investigation."

Sources: Orlando Sentinel

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login