Friday, October 5, 2007

ISABELLE ZEHNDER: CAICA: Crist: Cut cash for youth camp

Amy L. Edwards | Sentinel Staff Writer
September 21, 2007

Gov. Charlie Crist is recommending the state abolish its only STAR program -- the replacement for controversial youth boot camps -- as part of his plans to slash millions of dollars from the state budget.

Crist's proposal suggests cutting $4.3 million that funds the STAR program in Polk County, a center for moderate-risk males that emphasizes education, vocational training and volunteerism and provides counseling services for youths and their families.

Officials with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, the agency contracted to run the 100-bed facility, said they don't want to close the program and were surprised by the governor's recommendation.

"We certainly believe in the program. We need something to change these kids' criminality," said sheriff's Chief Gary Hester. "It's not like we make a profit off the contract. The only incentive here is to do the right thing, and in the long term, prevent crime."

Crist has recommended more than $600 million in cuts to state agencies' operating budgets.

At a special session next month, legislators will tackle a $1.1 billion shortfall in the state's budget.

Of Crist's proposed cuts, about $33 million are slated for the Department of Juvenile Justice at a time when cops, prosecutors and judges have said the state's juvenile-justice system is broken.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said she disagrees with Crist's proposal and cannot support "any cut" to the STAR program.

"This program is a well-run and highly effective successor to the boot-camp concept," Dockery said.

"With the current rate of juvenile crime, we should be encouraging more of these programs and making greater use of this one instead of threatening cuts."

Boys in Polk's STAR program spend hours on community-service projects, ranging from growing plants for area parks to raising fish and harvesting vegetables to give away to halfway houses and civic clubs.

Weekly counseling sessions are provided for youths and their families. Volunteers from throughout the community spend time mentoring the boys.

In calling the proposed funding cut "short-sighted," State Attorney Jerry Hill of Bartow said, "There's a direct link between public safety both today and tomorrow when it comes to the STAR program."

Lawmakers created the STAR program in June 2006 following the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at a Panama City boot camp. Several Florida sheriffs closed their boot camps instead of converting to STAR -- an acronym for Sheriff's Training and Respect.

Crist spokesman Anthony De Luise said the governor recommended eliminating STAR funding because the program is underused.

While the STAR program, housed in a building owned by Polk County, has 100 beds, only about 40 are filled.

Richard Davison, deputy secretary for the juvenile-justice department, said his agency is sending every youth who is eligible to the program. Davison said the legislation that created STAR also restricts who qualifies.

Amy L. Edwards can be reached at or 407-931-5946.