Palm Beach County's juvenile detention center could be turned over to a private company under a proposal in the Florida House of Representatives.
If lawmakers approve the plan this session, the state would need to look for a private contractor that could cut costs at the facility by at least $100,000 a year. Some state representatives say they hope a privatized program here will become a model for other detention centers statewide.
But many local leaders oppose the legislation, saying previous attempts to privatize programs for children have been disastrous.
Privatization "has been a failure, and to continue it would be failing in our duty to the children," Juvenile Judge Roger Colton said.
Juvenile programs cannot keep good workers because they pay near-poverty wages, Colton said. If the state wants to find cheaper labor, "maybe we ought to outsource it to Mexico."
Though most residential programs for teens are run by private companies, all 26 short-term detention centers remain under management of the Department of Juvenile Justice. A similar attempt to privatize the Southwest Florida detention center began in 2002 but died after the original contractor pulled out, saying it could not promise quality care at the state's proposed rates.
In recent months, the county's juvenile judges have expressed concerns about staff turnover and lack of services for children at the center. Many experienced workers have quit, and those remaining have been forced to work double shifts. But bringing in a private contractor to cut costs might only exacerbate shortages of people willing to work in the program, juvenile judges said.
The current plan says that the state should try to privatize the facility by Jan. 1, 2007. If no contractor can guarantee a $100,000 annual cost savings on the center's $4.7 million annual budget, it will remain under state control.
The House Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, added the privatization proposal as a line item to the budget. Barreiro did not return calls seeking comment on the plan.
Committee Vice Chairman Mitch Needelman, R-Melbourne, said the committee chose Palm Beach County as a privatization pilot because of its recent problems. He said he hopes a private contractor could add mentoring, educational programs and other services to teens who are forced to wait for openings in residential programs.
"I don't want somebody to come in here and do more baby-sitting," Needelman said. A private contractor might be able to help troubled kids "begin the process of real rehabilitation," he said.
Recent problems at state-run detention centers, especially the death of 17-year-old Omar Paisley in Miami-Dade County, show the need for change, Needelman said. When private contractors do a bad job, Needelman said, they are fired.
"If anybody thinks the state is doing a phenomenal job with these detention centers, they haven't been reading the papers for the last two years," Needelman said.
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