Later this month, the head of Florida’s juvenile justice system will be retiring. In the last of a two-part series, WFSU's Sascha Cordner continues the conversation with outgoing state Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters about her background, her work with the DJJ as well as a her future plans for when she leaves the agency.
Last week, we aired Part 1 of our conversation. Listen below to Part 2, which aired on Friday's Capital Report.
SASCHA CORDNER: You talked before about your June 30th retirement as sort of a time out. So, in the meantime, what will you be doing?
SECRETARY WALTERS: My husband and I are going to try and remain in the same place a little more than we’ve been able to for the past three and half years, and to be able to do some traveling and take a little break.
Now, before you and your family came to Tallahassee, you lived and worked in Miami. So, talk a little bit about your background, before you became head of DJJ.
Well, I was in Miami-Dade County, Florida. And, I was the director of the Juvenile Services Department. And, for over 10 years, we worked with the office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which is the juvenile justice arm of the Justice Department on a 10-year juvenile reform initiative.
And, what we were able to do in Miami is pretty much cut the arrest rate into less than half of what it was in its peak. We were able to reduce the number of kids in our detention center by over 60 percent. And, then we were really able to reduce recidivism by 80 percent.
And, the basic reason for that was just paying attention to kids early on, and trying to prevent them from moving deeper in the system.
Alright, so then you were later chosen by Governor Rick Scott and you’re also the first female to be in this role.
Yes, I am. [laughs]
So, did you feel any pressure?
Well, I felt a responsibility. I mean, it’s an honor to be the first woman in what has been considered a fairly male domain up until this time. But, more than anything I have such passion about the juvenile justice system, and the children that are in the system.
It was just a huge opportunity to help change a system that I felt needed to change.
Another thing that I feel is worth mentioning is you’re pretty much the longest serving agency head under Governor Rick Scott. So, what’s your secret?
Well, I can tell you Governor Rick Scott has been absolutely wonderful to this department and to me personally. He really understands juvenile justice. He understands that the system has inflicted a lot of damage on some of the young people who have been in it unintentionally.
And, so, he was very forward thinking in how he thought some reforms should take place, and that he really wanted Florida to have the best system. And, I really do think that we’re on our way to having the best system in the country.
Now, what do you feel is the legacy you’re leaving behind?
I think that if there was anything that I would want as a legacy, it would be that this is not a throwaway department for throwaway children. It’s not a mini adult system. It is a system for children who have gotten in trouble. And, it’s also a department that has an important role in keeping children from getting in trouble.
And, people forget…when someone sees a two-year-old acting out because their needs aren’t being met, they forget that the brain development of adolescence is not fully formed. And, so, you have children in our system who are virtually acting out on sometimes, pretty serious issues.
And, if there’s anything that I would hope that people would think of when they think of the juvenile justice system, it is that not all of the children in our system are children that have done something to get them on the 11 o’ clock news. Many of them made a mistake, or they’re acting out on some pretty serious issues. And, when you get them help and when you teach them a better way, overwhelmingly these children respond to that, and that is going to save their futures. And, that’s something that I would hope would be legacy of this administration.
And, is there any unfinished business or anything you’d like to see as the agency moves forward?
Oh absolutely! I think that there’s a long list of things that I think can be accomplished, that will be accomplished by this agency, and I will always be ready to help this agency in any way that can.
1) Pertains to direct file, 2) pertains to the education system, 3) I think our agency is underpaid based on kind of work that’s being done here compared to other agencies that are doing comparable work.
And, I want to see us continue with the initiatives that we have going in our agency that are really refining our juvenile justice system and making it a national model.
Well, I think that about wraps it up. Thank you so much Secretary Walters for joining us.
Thank you, Sascha. I appreciate it!
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.