I'm a staunch liberal. I used to do sex ed for Planned Parenthood. I sign online petitions for Amnesty International. The Prius in our Tallahassee carport sports an Obama sticker and a peace sign. So I'm "not, not real enthused" about my state's new Tea Party governor, Rick Scott. Scott's launched a take-no-prisoners assault on Florida's budget, including a 15% cut in education funding. Imagine my surprise, then, upon waking up and finding myself in bed with Gov. Scott -- that is, with his plan to make big cuts at the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The notion of "cutting justice" makes me cringe, but truth is, scaling back Juvenile Justice could actually reduce juvenile injustice. I say this after spending a year researching and writing a crime novel about beatings and deaths at a Florida reform school -- an institution that's like the express train to a life of crime. To quote a criminology professor I interviewed (and later transformed into a fictional character), "The best way to create career criminals is to bring kids into the juvenile justice system."
The book's plot is fictional; it revolves around the search for long-buried victims at a reform school that burned and closed in the 1960s. But the fiction is rooted in the grim soil of fact. Since 1900, the Florida panhandle town of Marianna has been home to one of the nation's most notorious juvenile-detention facilities. As early as 1903, legislators visiting the school found boys "in irons, like common criminals." In 1911, legislators investigated reports of floggings with a heavy leather strap. In 1914, a fire at the school killed eight boys, who were locked in a dormitory while their guards frolicked at a local brothel. In 1968, Florida's then-governor, Claude Kirk, visited the place and raged, "If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances, you'd be up there with rifles."
I recently met a man who spent nine months as a "student" at this school in the 1960s. He was flogged twice: 40 lashes the first time, 25 or 30 the second time. Ever since -- nearly half a century now -- he's struggled to reclaim his life. Other boys fared worse: tucked in a clearing on the school's wooded grounds are 31 unlabeled metal crosses, reminders that for some boys, "reform school" was a death sentence. Besides the 31 graves those crosses mark, another 50 boys perished at the school over the years, but the location of their graves is a mystery.
What does a century of reform-school abuse have to do with Tea Party poster boy Rick Scott? Just this: Gov. Scott proposes to save millions by eliminating or downsizing juvenile detention facilities in Florida. Under his plan, misdemeanor juvenile offenders -- that is, most juvenile offenders -- will be put in community-based programs instead of being locked up. Those who need watching can be tracked by GPS ankle bracelets... which, unlike human guards, don't have a history of beating or choking kids to death.
This year, Florida is spending $70 million to incarcerate kids for misdemeanors and probation violations; next year, by sending such kids to community-based programs, we'll save $50 million. But that's only the start of the savings. Keeping kids out of lockup makes them less likely to become career criminals... and we taxpayers save up to two million dollars for every career criminal we don't create. That makes sense -- fiscal sense and humanitarian sense -- not just in Florida, but in every state. I'm not the only liberal in bed with Gov. Scott on this. The Southern Poverty Law Center -- a fierce champion of liberal activism - is under the blankets with us, too, along with Florida TaxWatch, a fiscally conservative organization funded by business (more strange bedfellows!).
So in the case of kids, Gov. Scott? Go ahead, take no prisoners... or at least take far fewer.
But how about allocating a fraction of the savings to finding out what happened to those other 50 boys, the dead ones who are still missing? They remain skeletons in the closet, or in the soil, of a kids' prison that has a hundred-year rap sheet of brutality. Finding those boys -- using technology that's available, and drawing on forensic anthropologists who'd be glad to help -- would be a long-overdue step toward real juvenile justice.