Florida Judge Brings Innovative Ideas to System


AS an assistant Florida state attorney, Tom Petersen spent 1985-89 on leave, working as a sort of entrepreneur-idealist in Dade County's most troubled neighborhoods. He achieved national recognition for turning empty community centers in public housing projects into convenience marts, which employ welfare mothers and establish healthy centers of enterprise and activity.

Last year, Mr. Petersen was named a juvenile court judge here. Still candid and innovative, Judge Petersen is again tinkering with bureaucracy and trying to make it work.

In a Monitor interview, he says he finds the juvenile justice system to be a bureaucratic fa,cade that ultimately offers only ``sustained intensive television'' instead of rehabilitation.

What happens to young people in the juvenile justice system?

Not very much happens one way or another. Traditionally the argument is between rehabilitation versus punishment. But here [in Dade County] we don't do either one. The longest time a kid can spend in a program is 90 days, and what's a program? They sit there and watch TV. Recidivism rates are 80 percent.

Say I'm 16, and I steal a car. What happens to me?

The first car is free. [After that], the first time a kid comes through they clean the park. The kids don't really clean the parks. I know that.

By the third time, you're talking about sustained, intensive television.

Could it be different?

Yeah, it could. We could be involving universities, community groups. While these guys are sitting there, they could put on a play, charge admission, script their own television show.

A lot of these are creative kids, but we'll never know it. What's expected of them is that they won't disrupt the facility - no more than that.

That perpetuates the facility. It doesn't do anything for the kids.

Has the public come to doubt that such programs work?

Yeah, and we're confirming it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I first came here as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer, there was a lot of excitement about government. We were integrating things [racially]. What has happened 25 years later is we've learned that black, white, and brown - we all burn out. We've lost our energy.

There's no money like in the '60s to reinvigorate the system. It sometimes seems that the only people who believe that the system can effect drastic change are the kids. Matthew means it when he says he's not going to get in trouble again. But he will, because he's going right back into the same bad situation.

So what works?

Ironically, that little Teen Cuisine program is one of the most encouraging things we've got. [In Teen Cuisine, Petersen has convicted juveniles work under a professional manager to provide food service in the Dade County Juvenile Justice Center.] We treat them like human beings. These kids have long records, but we don't have any trouble with them. They don't run off or anything.

The best way to change behavior is with economic incentives. We learned that with women on welfare in the marts [set up in housing projects to serve and employ residents]. When you pay people, you change their behavior.

Why aren't there more Teen Cuisines?

It's hard for governments to start programs like that. It involves handling money. We wanted to make Teen Cuisine part of the [Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services] program, but a lot of little rules block doing things like that. They never get excited about new ideas. They're so defensive.

I go back to the paycheck theory of human development. You don't get extra pay to go out and recruit the theater grad student to put on the play. You need incentives and encouragement from above.

Where did things go wrong?

The juvenile system is based on the ideas of 30 years ago: Johnny's off the track; let's get Johnny back together again. But these kids are the product of whole neighborhoods off the track.

We really run our juvenile justice system on semantics. Halfway houses used to mean something: halfway between incarceration and a place in the community. In reality, they're not halfway between anything. We call them halfway houses because it sounds good.

So it's all a fa,cade?

In juvenile justice, at this point, we run it pretty much as a marquee - what it looks like to the victims and to the arresting officer.

It comes back to power relationships. The kids don't have power. Neither do the case managers. The kids are either patronized or intimidated.

The sad thing about saying that is that a lot of the people who work in the system care a great deal, especially the case managers with caseloads of 200. They get crushed by this thing, too.

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