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Zero Tolerance Bill Passes Full Senate

Department of Juvenile Justice priority bill heads to the Florida House

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Tallahassee -- The Florida Senate has unanimously passed Sen. Stephen Wise’s SB 1540, a priority of the Department of Juvenile Justice dealing with zero tolerance policies in schools. The legislation requires that children no longer be referred to law enforcement for minor violations such as bringing plastic butter knives to school, drawing pictures of guns or throwing an eraser.

“I thank Senator Stephen Wise and the Senate for their deep commitment to the youth of our state,” said DJJ Secretary Frank Peterman, Jr. “This bill will work to reduce the number of children entering the juvenile justice system and better address delinquency in our schools.”

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville, is the House sponsor. DJJ is now pushing for final passage on the House floor.

"When a youth gets into the juvenile justice system everybody thinks their sins are forgiven when that youth turns 18, and I will assure you that doesn't happen. It's a blemish on their record." Wise told a Senate panel earlier this month.

Data from the Department of Juvenile Justice illustrates the urgency of this legislation. More than half of the youth referred from schools are first-time offenders, and a misdemeanor was the most serious charge for 67% of school-related referrals. SB1540 would redirect a large number of these children away from the juvenile justice system through diversionary alternatives. Research shows that excluding children from school increases the odds of academic failure and dropping out. Moreover, once a child or teenager is involved in the juvenile justice system the odds of that child or teenager becoming more deeply embedded in the system dramatically increase. During fiscal year 2006-07, 22,926 youth or 16.1% of the referrals to the DJJ were school related, and 19% of youth referred already had at least one school-related referral.

“The passing of this bill will reduce the unintended consequences that zero tolerance has played in creating direct pathways into the juvenile justice system for kids who don’t belong there. The bill gives school districts necessary discretion to focus on individualized responses to students and avoid the one-size-fits-all mandatory punishment,” commented Cathy Craig-Myers, Executive Director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association.

Alternatives to arrest, such as teen courts and school accountability boards, divert children away from the juvenile justice system while effectively addressing the misbehaviors that could lead to or qualify as misdemeanor offenses. In counties where diversionary alternatives are used, far fewer children are referred to the juvenile justice system. For example, two of the state’s largest school districts -- Miami‐Dade and Palm Beach - extensively use alternatives to arrest. These districts also have school referral rates that are much lower than the general statewide average.

SB 1540 would:

  • Define and distinguish petty acts of misconduct as opposed to offenses that pose serious threats to school safety.
     
  • Prohibit the reporting of petty acts of misconduct and certain misdemeanors to law enforcement.
     
  • Require schools that still have corporal punishment policies to review them every three years at a public meeting.

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