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Juvenile Justice's new chief

Published May 20, 2004

Anthony Schembri, Gov. Jeb Bush's pick to lead Florida's troubled Juvenile Justice Department, has an impressive background in the field of corrections. That should prove a plus, provided the former Rye, N.Y., police chief appreciates the different missions of the adult-criminal and juvenile-offender systems. Though the ideal candidate would have had more direct experience in juvenile justice, Schembri will have the chance to prove he was the right choice by pushing Florida toward a more balanced approach that values treatment and not just punishment.

Schembri, the former head of New York City's jails and member of Florida's Corrections Commission, takes over from Bill Bankhead, who stepped aside amid the fallout from last summer's preventable death of Omar Paisley, who died of a ruptured appendix while in detention. High-energy and affable, Schembri inspired the television police drama The Commish, in which he was portrayed as tough yet caring, unorthodox but effective. In his newest real-life role, Schembri will need those qualities, and more, to restore credibility to an agency suffering from mismanagement and an excessively punitive culture.

Schembri says he values prevention, describing himself as neither "tough" nor "soft" on crime, merely "smart."

"I intend to raise the level of public debate about juvenile crime in this state to where it hasn't been," he told reporters last week.

That debate is needed - and could begin with the latest report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, highlighting significant gaps in the agency Schembri is set to lead. He should press Florida to confront the Council's troubling question: Why are more and more of Florida's young offenders being sent to deep-end commitment facilities when juvenile crime, both in rate and severity, is on the decline?

Florida has an "ineffective" system for matching young offenders to the appropriate confinement level and an "unsound" method for predicting future needs, according to researchers. As a result, the agency routinely routes juveniles based on what beds or programs are available, not on which placement makes the most social and fiscal sense. With community treatment programs underfunded and underutilized, many low-risk juveniles end up in the more restrictive - and expensive - higher-risk facilities. The report estimates that Florida could recoup and reinvest as much as $42-million by sending eligible juveniles to community programs instead.

Those findings should give Schembri more pause than they did Interim Secretary C. George Denman, who greeted the report by disingenuously suggesting that the state is already doing most of what is needed. Florida is far from offering the continuum of programs the Council recommends and our youth and taxpayers deserve.

If the incoming chief is as "smart" on crime as he claims, he will see that Florida can save lives and money by reserving the harshest lockdown for the serious young offenders who truly require it.

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