High rate of delinquency locally:
Between 1996 and 2001, 8.7 of every 100 Volusia County youths ages 10 to 17 were charged with delinquency, compared to the state average of 6.4 of every 100 juveniles and Flagler County's average of 7.4.
High recidivism rate:
Of youths from the 7th Judicial Circuit (Volusia, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns counties) sentenced to five "moderate-risk" juvenile commitment programs, nearly 80 percent released between 1995 and 1999 landed back in court with new charges after a year or less.
That percentage was the highest of any judicial circuit in the state during that period. The state average is 62 percent. Among 79 moderate-risk residential commitment programs in the state, the highest rates of new offenses among youths released between 1997-99 were posted by three boys' programs in Volusia County -- Stewart-Marchman's Lee Hall and The Terrace and the state-run Volusia Halfway House.
In the three programs, four of every five graduates faced new charges within a year of their release.
More youths confined in residential programs:
The number of delinquent youths from Volusia County committed to residential commitment facilities increased 39 percent between 1995-96 and 1999-00, even as overall delinquency referrals -- especially for violent felonies -- steadily decreased.
More youths committed for lesser offenses: In Volusia County, the percentage of youths committed for probation violations (such as skipping school or staying out after curfew) increased from 45 in 1995-96 (or 16.4 percent of all cases) to 137 in 1999-00 (or 35.9 percent of all cases). Statewide, 15.3 percent of commitments were for probation violations in 1999-00. Meanwhile, the number of Volusia County youths committed for felonies fell from 165 in 1995-96 (or 60.2 percent of all commitments) to 113 (29.6 percent) in 1999-00.
Of the five "moderate risk" residential commitment programs in Daytona Beach, four were classified among the "least effective" of 79 such programs statewide in a 2001 report released by the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Robert E. Lee Jr. Hall, one of four programs run by Stewart-Marchman Center, was rated the worst of all 79 programs. Scores of all five programs improved in the 2002 report released in February, but Stewart-Marchman's Terrace Halfway House boys program and the state-run Volusia Halfway House remained "below average" while Robert E. Lee Jr. Hall remained among the five "least effective" programs.
Poor aftercare services:
Stewart-Marchman officials place much of the blame for high recidivism rates on the ineffectiveness of the aftercare program Stewart-Marchman operated here between 1995 and 2001.
Commitment program graduates were required to report to a group center for as long as 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long as six months.
According to Stewart-Marchman administrator Toni Barrett, "Violent offenders were put together with moderate-risk offenders, while sex offenders were with moderate-risk kids. Some moderate-risk kids would join in negative behaviors -- stealing cars, doing drugs. It was a very poor model."
Program officials say they recommended replacement of this system with intensive community surveillance and home-based family treatment services, but until this year the state refused to fund such a program.
Last year, the state contracted with Eckerd Juvenile Justice Services to provide the type of transitional, community-based program originally proposed by Stewart-Marchman.
No skilled job training:
Another factor for the high recidivism rate is a lack of skilled job training for commitment pro gram residents, Stewart-Marchman officials say.
In 1999, the state Legislature approved funding for a $450,000 job-training center at Stewart-Marchman's Tiger Bay Road campus, but that funding was eliminated in a line-item veto by Gov. Jeb Bush.
The state's most successful programs, operated by South Florida-based Associated Marine Industries, stress vocational training as a key tool to help reintegrate graduating youth into their communities.
Abusive staff members:
All six juvenile commitment programs based in Daytona Beach have fired employees over the past three years in response to allegations the employees physically abused youth in their care.
Low guard pay:
Employees hired to guard youths in long-term commitment programs are paid $7.34 to start. That's $3 an hour less to start than those guarding youths in short-term high-security juvenile detention centers.
Juvenile detention center guards earn $3,000 less, on average, than guards in maximum-security adult prisons.
Commitment center guards earn such anemic starting pay because the state Legislature has not increased funding for guards since 1993.
Many employees move on to higher-paying jobs at the detention center as soon as they get some experience at Stewart-Marchman, program officials say.
High staff turnover:High turnover among residential care staff plagues these programs. Among employees who filled 50 such positions at the four Stewart-Marchman programs between 1998 and 2001, 37 were fired and another 106 resigned. Program officials say the turnover rate was about 67 percent annually during that period. The program has recently initiated a plan to reduce the turnover rate.
More criminal charges against youth: Youth who strike staff members are routinely charged with assaults and batteries -- charges that are often felonies and can prolong a youth's incarceration. However, staff terminated for using excessive force against youth never face criminal charges for their actions, and law enforcement seldom looks deeply into complaints about abuses by staff.
Detention center dogged by staff shortages, low morale:
Other programs of the juvenile justice system in Volusia County received mediocre grades in state reviews. In its 2001 review by the Bureau of Quality Assurance, the Volusia Detention Center received a "minimal" grade of 69 percent.
Problems included low employee morale due to staffing shortages and mandatory overtime. Fatigue was cited as a factor in staff injuries received during physical restraints of juveniles. Parents and probation officers were not told of solitary confinements. Ten-minute checks of youths in solitary confinement were not documented as required. Guards logged inaccurate youth counts. Staff shortages prevented youth from receiving outdoor recreation. Staff misplaced or stole youth's property. And the detention center had failed to conduct required mental health and substance abuse assessments. That failure was cited in an investigation into the suicide in October of a 13-year-old boy with a history of emotional and behavioral problems.
Probation officers fail to connect:
Probation services for the judicial circuit that includes Volusia and Flagler counties received a 74 percent "acceptable performance" rating in its 2001 Quality Assurance review. The program fell short of expectations in several key areas, including failing to contact victims and arresting officers as required; tardiness in submitting recommendations to the state attorney; failing to update supervision plans; and failing to visit youths and parents at least once a month as required.
Florida is locking up more children than ever before, in a juvenile justice system marred by abusive guards, harsh punishment for minor offenses, and a shortage of programs that help kids turn things around
Third-place winner, Investigative Reporting, Division B, Florida Society of News Editors 2003 awards
Published in The Daytona Beach News-Journal on April 28, 2002
On a night when the bosses were away, Mark Anthony Brown, a youth specialist at Stewart-Marchman Treatment Center's Lee Hall facility in Daytona Beach, ordered 31 teen-age boys to get on their knees and place their hands behind their heads.
"I saw Mr. Brown hit a lot of clients in the face," one of the boys wrote in a statement afterward. "Mr. Brown was yelling. Screaming. Telling people what jail was like. He said, 'Stay down.' I heard screaming. Staff kept saying how they didn't want us in big jail. If we went there, we'd get raped and beat up.'"
For 45 minutes on that Sunday night in April 1999, according to Brown's termination notice, the supervisor marched up and down the long row slapping the teens in the head and arms, screaming and using profanity.
Statements by 25 of the 31 youths convinced administrators to fire Brown.
For young offenders, it was another day of "tough love," and another piece of evidence that Florida's get-tough juvenile justice system -- an almost complete reversal of the get-help approach of 10 years ago -- is riddled with serious problems.
The ills are especially acute in Volusia County, which has the highest rate of juvenile delinquency charges among the state's 10 largest counties and, in recent years, the highest rate of commitment program graduates charged with new offenses within a year of their release. At the same time, local commitment facilities serving Volusia and Flagler kids are ranked among the state's worst, based on the high percentage of graduates arrested again within a year.
The extent of local problems came to light tragically on Oct. 29, when 13-year-old Shawn Smith hanged himself in his cell at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center. An investigation found nine workers -- from guards to contracted health-care providers -- failed to follow procedures in place to protect juveniles from hurting themselves or others.
A Daytona Beach News-Journal review of state reports and juvenile justice statistics released in 2001 and earlier, plus interviews with officials, parents and youths turned up numerous indicators of a system mired in dysfunction, locally and statewide:
Low-wage supervisors: From 1990 to 2001, the state Legislature more than doubled juvenile justice spending to nearly $700 million, pouring tens of millions of dollars into new long-term residential programs, increasing the number of commitment beds from 1,129 to 6,278. At the same time, no additional money was provided to increase the salaries of people who supervise the kids.
As a result, turnover is high, firings are frequent, abuse complaints are common, and men and women making around $7 an hour, with no prior training, are given responsibility for the health and safety of children committed to the programs.
In the three-year period ending October 2001, youths made more than 180 abuse complaints against guards working night shifts at the state-run detention center, Volusia Halfway House and Stewart-Marchman commitment programs. Investigations of each complaint were conducted by the Department of Juvenile Justice's Office of Inspector General; 13 were substantiated.
Although a large number of abuse reports document physical injuries, the vast majority are "unsubstantiated" or "unfounded" for reasons that include a lack of witnesses or surveillance tape evidence. Detention center Superintendent Paul Finn said 99 percent of allegations are exaggerated or false.
Yet personnel records from the commitment programs and detention center between 1998 and 2001 show many resignations and firings following children's complaints of abuse.
Incidents detailed in those records include:
A detention center guard picked up a 17-year-old boy and dropped him on the floor, fracturing his wrist. Another picked up a youth and threw him into his cell, causing his head to hit the wall. The gash required six staples. At Stewart-Marchman, a worker was fired for "slamming a client against the wall, causing damage to the wall." Another was fired for encouraging two boys to hit each other in a "bam-off." A woman was fired from the center for reportedly telling a client, "You're stupid. You'll never amount to anything." Another woman was fired for reportedly kissing and trying to seduce a female client. Before Stewart-Marchman took over the Timberline girls program, a guard was convicted of raping a 17-year-old female client in her bed at the facility.
A mix of violent criminals and troubled kids: With the rise in juvenile facilities has come a rise in the number of commitments statewide, from 8,079 in 1994 to 13,877 -- or about 10 percent of all juveniles arrested -- in 1999-00. Some are violent, serious offenders. Yet many others are convicted of minor crimes such as fighting at school, trespassing or running away from home, or probation violations such as smoking cigarettes, skipping school, missing curfew, failing drug tests or failing to do homework.
In Volusia County in 1999-2000, nearly 36 percent of the youths ordered into commitment programs were committed because they violated probation sentences stemming from an earlier offense. Statewide, probation violations accounted for only 15.3 percent of commitments.
A major contributor to Volusia's high percentage is the zero-tolerance policy of Circuit Judge John Watson, who presides over juvenile cases in East Volusia and admits he is one of the strictest, most punishment-oriented juvenile judges in the state.
Every juvenile who comes before Watson will, on average, return to his courtroom twice to answer charges of violating probation. Critics of what Watson calls "deep court involvement" say committing nonviolent, moderate-risk offenders to the same programs as chronic, violent young criminals may cause more harm than good to the nonviolent teens.
Failure to fund programs designed to help troubled kids: Over the past two years, the Legislature has slashed spending on prevention and intervention programs while adding millions for new residential beds. Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed $200,000 approved last year for school-run prevention programs in Daytona Beach. The Legislature last year killed a program that allowed nonviolent offenders to serve their sentences in their own homes.
A new $5 million-a-year prevention program targeting young first-offenders is offered everywhere in the state except the 7th Judicial Circuit, which includes Volusia and Flagler counties. In addition, for most of 2001, Volusia County had no aftercare program, considered vital by juvenile justice professionals for commitment program graduates to make a crime-free transition back to their homes.
And yet by 2001, Volusia County was home to 153 commitment beds among six programs: two boys programs and two girls programs at nonprofit Stewart-Marchman; the state-operated Volusia Halfway House; and Three Springs of Daytona Beach, a high-security lockdown program for juvenile sex offenders. Critics charge that as prevention and diversion programs disappear, judges have little choice but to lock up offenders in months-long commitment programs.
'THESE KIDS ARE GETTING ANGRIER AND ANGRIER'
State officials blame poor family structures and Volusia County's party-hardy reputation for the high rate of delinquency.
In each of the past five years, an average of 8.7 of every 100 Volusia County children between ages 10 and 17 have found themselves formally charged with offenses that include violent felonies, petty theft, curfew violations, cigarette smoking and truancy. By comparison, 7.4 percent of Flagler County children faced delinquency charges during the same period, and only 6.4 of every 100 children statewide did.
When sentencing young and usually repeat offenders to commitment programs, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders tell parents these programs are treatment centers staffed by professionals who will help their children correct the errors of their ways.
And the behavior of many youths improve during their stays, according to children and parents interviewed for this report. Others, however, grow more despondent and out of reach as a result of the loss of freedom, austere living conditions and taunting by other youths and staff members. As a result, some parents say, their children emerge from their commitments in worse shape than before they went in.
What parents may not realize is that the Department of Juvenile Justice regards the 216 commitment programs in Florida first and foremost as punishment centers -- or youth jails.
"What's been happening is the department has chosen to pursue more of a penal system for juveniles rather than a system of prevention and intervention," said Rep. Gustavo A. Barreiro, R-Miami, chairman of the House Juvenile Justice Committee and a vocal opponent of the current approach.
Critics such as Barreiro have begun to object over what they say amounts to warehousing offenders. They point to a problem-riddled 350-bed commitment center in Palm Beach County and a planned 200-bed girls program near St. Augustine as proof that the Department of Juvenile Justice, under Secretary Bill Bankhead, cares more about scoring political points with law-and-order conservatives than about helping kids become productive members of society.
"When you yank a kid out of his community and send him to a residential program where there's a high staff-to-kid ratio, where there's no involvement with family and a high degree of punishment, you may be able to say you're tough on crime, but those kids are getting angrier and angrier," said Frank Orlando, a retired South Florida judge and consultant on juvenile justice issues. The department considers its primary mission to protect society by jailing dangerous youths.
"The staff is charged first and foremost with protecting public safety," Stewart-Marchman director Ernest Cantley said. "Preventing escapes is seen by many as the No. 1 priority."
Treatment and rehabilitation come second. The majority of committed youths see a counselor one-on-one for an hour a week. The remainder of the professional help consists of hour-long daily group counseling sessions run by program employees.
Mental health treatment in most programs consists of a one-size-fits-all blend of "reality therapy" in which youths are forced to take responsibility for their actions, and "behavior modification" which uses a point system to provide rewards, privileges and consequences for behavior.
As a department priority, treatment has always trailed incarceration. Prior to 1997, contract applicants weren't required to specify types of treatment they would provide in their commitment programs.
Children housed both at the detention center and the commitment programs spend the bulk of their days in school sessions run by a team of teachers from the county school system. State reviewers have consistently given the school services strong marks, which raised the detention center's otherwise abysmal Quality Assurance score in 2001.
But one parent, who asked not to be named, said the school sessions failed to challenge her son.
"There's no way they can progress at their grade level," the parent said.
'SUPERPREDATOR' JUVENILES TRIGGERED TOUGH RESPONSE
The system's conversion in 1994 from a rehabilitation-oriented system, run by the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, to the present punishment-oriented system was a response in large part to highly publicized tourist killings that threatened Florida's tourism industry during the early 1990s.
Lawmakers decided the old system was broken after it became known that the killers were habitual juvenile offenders who had repeatedly been arrested and released under the old system.
About the same time, researchers and the media published dire warnings that society would soon fall prey to a new breed of juvenile "superpredator" -- remorseless, uncontrollable monsters born to the first generation of hard-core crack addicts in the 1980s.
Experts now say early-1990s fears of juvenile "superpredators" were based on half-truths and myths.
According to Assistant State Attorney David Smith, there's no greater percentage of dangerous juveniles now than before 1994, when the juvenile justice system was reorganized from a social service agency to a corrections system modeled after the adult prison system.
Companies that specialized in running mental health and substance abuse facilities jumped into the fray when they saw the money flowing into the juvenile justice system for new beds.
"They jumped into the arena and submitted proposals without any real understanding of what they were doing," said retired judge Orlando. "In a lot of cases, they kept the same programs and ran them the same way they were running their existing programs. But they were not equipped to deal with at-risk kids.
"It's an industry," Orlando said. "The more beds and the more wire you have, the less staff and programming you need. The less education you have, the more money you make."
As they poured millions into new juvenile jails, lawmakers did not increase the amount of money allotted to hire guards for nine years dating back to 1993. So while pay offered by commitment programs became less and less competitive, programs struggled to find applicants.
Today, nearly anyone can get a job supervising juvenile delin quents. All that's required is a high school diploma or equivalent, two years free of substance abuse, a criminal record free of felonies and selected misdemeanors, and a willingness to work for $7.34 an hour.
The department's low standards bred problems at commitment programs throughout the state.
In 1998, South Florida judges ordered prosecutors to stop sending children to the Pahokee Youth Development Center, a 350-bed Palm Beach County complex where 10 staff members were fired within a year for failing to stop fights or using excessive force against the teens.
Problems also surfaced at two Broward County facilities. Parents complained that counselors at the Threshold Program screamed at the children and meted out punishment for offenses not listed in the posted rules. At the Gordon Center, an employee was fired for showing clients pornographic movies and taking sexually suggestive pictures of clients.
Some guards who have supervised juveniles at Stewart-Marchman would have a tough time passing a literacy test.
A woman who resigned from the center in March 2000 complained, in a letter to superiors, that she would be blamed "every time some go wrong in the build."
"And I seen that then people get to act funny with me and start have they litter way," she wrote. "But I start said that I didn't not care and start doing thing that I know was not right just for you to get mad at me and come and said ... I am going to have to let you go."
MORE BEDS, FEWER PROGRAMS REMAIN STATE'S PRIORITY
State Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, said lawmakers were justified over the past eight years in choosing to build new lockdown beds rather than pay increases for staff.
"I'd rather have a kid in a commitment program than sitting at home waiting for a bed," he said.
In the proposed 2002-03 budget, prevention and diversion programs would still be cut below levels approved a year ago. And millions more would again go to build more lockdown beds.
Proposed pay raises for guards -- the first in 10 years -- would only go to the most successful commitment programs. Based on current quality ratings, guards in only one of six Daytona Beach programs would likely qualify for the raises.
Instead of cutting spending on prevention programs, critics argue, the state should fund more such programs for nonviolent youths currently locked up with violent, habitual offenders.
A list of youths admitted to Stewart-Marchman's programs prior to October reveals that residents' offense histories vary widely. A boy with two misdemeanors on his record was committed alongside seven boys with three or more felonies. A girl with one misdemeanor was housed with a girl with 10 felonies and another with 17 misdemeanors.
Nearly 80 percent of 1,446 Florida youths committed for probation violations in 1999-00 had never committed a violent felony, department statistics show. But roughly 70 percent had a prior felony conviction of some kind.
A 1997 report by a legislative watchdog agency questioned the appropriateness of committing youth for probation violations such as skipping school or breaking curfew, that would not otherwise be illegal.
A more effective deterrent may be short, weekend-long "tune-up" commitments that would be more "fitting for the violation" and save taxpayers more than $6 million a year, the report said.
Juvenile Justice officials rejected that proposal, saying, "It is the department's intent to hold juvenile offenders accountable."
The department's hard-line approach, said Rep. Barriero, seems to set kids up for failure. The department, he said, "has a philosophy that you can't change every kid, instead of having a philosophy that you should try to change every kid.
"We forgot what makes kids change: programs that let them believe they can have a better life," he said.
"Kids who are committing heinous crimes, killing people, have always been dealt with harshly," he said. "Now we criminalize everything kids do. Now instead of going home after a schoolyard fight, they have a charge for assault, with a minimum sentence."
Copyright, 2002, The News-Journal Corporation