Statement From Shay Bilchik: Florida Faces Crisis in Juvenile Justice Funding

Child Welfare League of America
Thursday, 1 November 2001

Right now, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and its other elected and appointed leaders are facing some tough budget choices. None of these choices are more important than those that affect our children. As the CEO of the nation's oldest and largest membership-based child welfare organization, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), I know that equally hard choices are being made around the U.S., and even around the world, in the aftermath of September 11.

America's new top priority, on the most personal level as well as in the halls of Congress, is keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe from harm. I am grateful for the precautions that are being taken. But I know that terrorism from without is not the only danger Americans face.

In my seven years as administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention within the U.S. Department of Justice, and before that, in my 16 years, as a prosecutor in Miami-Dade County, I learned a lot about how to fight crime and ensure public safety. One thing I learned was that the most dangerous individuals are those who have grown up without the physical and emotional security that children need to thrive.

Fortunately, Florida has many proven programs that give children and young people security and point them in the right direction-even when their lives have gotten off to a rocky start. These are the programs we need to protect at any cost, even in tight budget times. Because the budget proposal that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is currently recommending fails to accomplish this, it threatens the long-term safety of Florida and Floridians.

In polls both this year and last, a majority of the Florida voters interviewed said that they support spending for prevention and early intervention over spending for secure confinement. They know that a stitch in time saves nine, and that it makes all of our lives more secure.

Now, Florida's voters have given their assent to a way to protect public safety without cutting any essential services. A coalition of organizations representing schools and services for children and seniors commissioned a random telephone poll of 600 registered voters between Oct. 12 and 14, just a few days ago. A full 80% of the voters polled believed that the Legislature should protect existing budgets for these essential services, and 65% said they would support a half-penny increase on the state sales tax for one year if the money went to preserve them. Those tiny increments could add up to $1.2 billion-enough to preserve

Floridians' most strategic investments in domestic safety and security. In this democracy, if the people lead, the leaders should follow. Whether they choose tax cuts or some other way to balance the budget, I'm challenging Florida's decision-makers to listen to the public and look at the facts before they make the difficult decisions before them.

Fact: Juvenile crime has been falling steadily in this state and nationwide, adding up to a 20% reduction in Florida since 1994. In Florida, murders committed by youth dropped 25% and auto thefts 35% --- in a decade when the state's youth population was growing by 26%.

Fact: Only a small proportion of youth who enter the juvenile justice system become serious and chronic juvenile offenders. Depending on the study, anywhere from 8-15% of these offenders commit from 60-80% of the delinquent offenses. This population can be identified - and in many cases, successfully redirected --- early in their delinquent history.

Research tells us that sustained reductions in juvenile crime can best be achieved by keeping all of our children safe from the start and providing targeted early intervention and treatment services for the small population of delinquent offenders. In states and local communities across the U.S. we have seen how a stitch in time prevents deepening involvement in the juvenile justice system, protecting the public safety in the most cost-effective and compassionate manner. This approach makes common sense---and voters understand it.

Florida, like every state, needs an array of effective services all along the service continuum. That array must include both secure facilities for the small number of dangerous juvenile offenders and prevention and intervention services for the thousands of other young people who can be directed away from delinquent behavior and become contributing citizens.

I know that Florida's leaders care about the state's children and are trying hard to make the right choices. The fact is, though, that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice's budget recommendation, designed to meet the Governor's prescribed reductions, is dangerously out of balance. It puts its resources disproportionately at the back end of the service continuum, where the minority are, rather than at the front end to help the majority. Florida's leaders must balance the investment of tax dollars between immediate public safety measures and long-term crime prevention. Florida's children and its communities deserve no less.

For more information, or to contact Child Welfare League of America, see their website at: www.cwla.org

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