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DJJ Head Walters Bids Farewell Part 1: Talks 'Time Out,' Overall Successes

Sascha Cordner
Outgoing DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters laughing during a recent interview.

WFSU’s Sascha Cordner sat down with outgoing Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters, who will be retiring in a month from her role, as first reported by the News Service of Florida. As the agency’s first female head, she’s also one of the longest serving agency heads under Governor Rick Scott. She’s been responsible for a number of innovations, including a civil citation program that has helped reduce the overall juvenile crime-rate.

Hear Part 1 of our conversation below. Stay tuned to next week's Capital Report to hear Part 2.

SASCHA CORDNER: I’m speaking with current DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters. So, welcome to our Capital Report program.

SECRETARY WALTERS: Well, thank you for having me.

So, the reason why we’re here is you’re leaving the agency soon on June 30th to retire. So, talk a little bit about that and what made you come to this decision.

Well, I think I would rather call it a time out, instead of a retirement. But, it’s been a very intensive three and half years. And, all of the major goals have been accomplished. We have a lot of things in the works, and when we passed the bill, it’s time to take a break.

And, I believe the bill you’re talking about is the rewrite of the Florida law that governs juvenile justice that passed this Session. So, speaking of which, how would you say the department fared in the 2014 Legislative Session. And, did all your priorities get through?

Yes, they did. It was a very special session for this agency. We have been working for about three years to position us to update the statutes that govern the juvenile justice system. And, we did it in a very collaborative way with a lot of partnership throughout the state of Florida. We initially drafted a “Roadmap to Systems Excellence,” took it around the state as a draft, take that and overlay it with our statute and start to adjust those laws to really reflect the kind of system that not only law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges say they wanted, but also parents, advocates, and educators. And, we were able to put a bill together for the section of the statutes 985 that really reflect what we’ve been doing to make this a better system.

And, I don’t really think this is an end of the reforms or the end of the updating of the laws. I think it really represents the beginning because we now have people thinking about taking it to additional levelsand looking at different other parts of the system that maybe didn’t make it into the first draft.

We also had an education bill pass that is going to increase the funding for school districts for children who are serving in our residential programs. It’s going to be easier for them to get vocational training and different kinds of skill sets that are going to help them get jobs when they leave our programs.

And, as far as the Legislature’s concerned, they were very generous with our department in giving us additional funding and enhancing the programs that are in the front end of our system. So, it was a really, really good year for us.

Now, before you were tapped by the Governor, you worked as the head of Miami Dade’s Juvenile Services department. So, what’s made you so passionate about working of the juvenile justice system all these years?

Well, when I was growing up, I was just in trouble all the time. And, I never quite understood how I was constantly getting into trouble. And, I think there are thousands of kids who find their way into the juvenile justice system that ask that same question. So, I feel compassion for children because so often, they just have no idea. They make some foolish choices and show some poor judgment, but my gosh, they’re still children.

So, we have to have a system that is going to protect their best interest, and protecting their best interest is not treating them so cruelly that we make them more angry and more unlikely to fit in. We can’t interrupt their education. We need to ensure that they’re getting a good education. And, we need to, if they’re angry, or their upset, or they’re acting out, we need to teach them a better way, how to deal with those issues, and how to act in a way that is going to allow them to have a good future.

Because I think in many cases, the juvenile justice system has simply taken children from the deeper end of this system has simply taken children from the deeper end of this system and prepared them to go to prison because by the time they’re done., there’s not a whole lot of options or a whole lot of hope for them.

And, what is something that you feel very proud of? Just kind of expound on a few things that you feel is a focus and was a focus during your tenure. And, one of things I’m sure you’re going to talk about is civil citations. Whenever, I think about you, that’s probably the thing that comes to mind the most, and that some say helped bring down the overall juvenile crime rate.

Well, you couldn’t say anything that makes me happier to hear that! Certainly, civil citations is playing a role in that.

And, a civil citation is not a parking ticket. It is basically just a term that’s used for a child that’s going into a diversion program for a first-time misdemeanant. It’s very accountable and it’s got some requirements. And, the child that’s committed that misdemeanor has some responsibilities that they have to adhere to.

But, what it does is allows us to really check on whether that child has got some issues that we can address right up front. And, if they are successful in doing everything that’s required of them, then we do not put their arrest record into the criminal justice database, which is going to be instrumental for those kids to be able to get a job, get some school loans...so, that’s playing a big role.

Another big role in bringing down the arrest rate has been doing the assessments at the earliest points of entry, whether it’s for a more serious crime or for a misdemeanant, starting to determine: is this is a child with substance abuse? Is this a child with family issues? Is this a child who doesn’t need a whole lot of services, just needs to do some restitution and have some community services?

It allows us to treat them as individuals and when you start treating them as individuals and giving them a real pathway to getting themselves out of trouble, these children are really responding to that, and I think our whole department is very proud of that.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.