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Florida Times-Union editorial: Duval's harsh treatment of juveniles must improve

Duval County leads Florida in its harsh and counterproductive treatment of juveniles, often at great cost to taxpayers and with dire results for children.

Until now, Duval’s practices have been out of sync with emerging trends across the nation. Chief among those trends is recognition that alternatives to lockup actually reduces future crimes by children.

This county committed a higher percentage of its children to youth prisons than any other of Florida’s 12 largest counties last year. In fact, children in Duval were five times more likely to be committed to a juvenile facility than children in Miami-Dade.

Crime rates and referrals to juvenile detention have dropped in Florida in the last three years, including in Duval, but several areas remain problematic.

Arrests for minor offenses

An alarming number of Duval’s juvenile arrests are at school, and more than half are for first-time offenses.

Of the 438 school arrests last year, about 40 percent were for offenses defined as “petty misconduct” and exempted from the state’s zero tolerance policy because they are better handled by school officials.

This lock ’em up policy is hard on minorities.

While African-Americans make up 40 percent of Duval’s population ages 10-17, they comprise 63 percent of all juvenile referrals and 77 percent of school arrests, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

Florida leads the nation and Duval County leads the state in sending children to the adult court system, even though data show that putting children in the adult system often turns them into career criminals.

Most of the Duval County children transferred to adult court last year were not dangerous offenders. Indeed, 54 percent of the offenses for which children were transferred to adult court were nonviolent.

One other troubling trend: Even as juvenile crime has decreased and referrals to the juvenile system have declined, the Duval juvenile detention facility has remained at or near capacity, meaning longer stays are the trend.

Better ways to deal with juvenile offenders use programs that cost less and reduce crime, according to statistics cited by groups such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Programs that divert non-violent offenders away from incarceration and provide support initiatives are most effective when youthful offenders can stay in their home or other stable environment as support intervention ensues.

Best practices elsewhere

In Miami-Dade, for example, police can no longer arrest children for a misdemeanor if it is their first offense. Instead they can give a civil citation, which doesn’t result in a criminal record, and put the child on a track toward prevention and rehabilitation.

The results in Miami-Dade are impressive: Since 2007, juvenile arrests have dropped by 16 percent and juvenile detention has fallen by 31 percent. Miami-Dade locks up far fewer children now, which saves money and increases chances that juveniles stay out of trouble.

Miami-Dade’s turnaround was led by Wansley Walters. She led that county’s juvenile services department before Gov. Rick Scott appointed her to head Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice early last year. Scott charged Walters with reforming the state’s juvenile justice system.

Last month, the Department of Juvenile Justice issued its “Roadmap to System Excellence,” a plan that aspires to transform Florida into a national model for juvenile justice. It is ambitious, enlightened and attainable.

The plan focuses on prevention, diverting youth from secure detention, reducing and redesigning expensive residential bed capacity and reallocating resources into support programs for troubled youth and their families.

As the dismal statistics show, Jacksonville’s children in trouble have not been served well.

Only serious offenders should be in secure detention.

Duval officials — law enforcement, prosecutors and juvenile support agencies — have recently started working more closely with state juvenile justice officials to improve coordination among agencies as they work to increase the use of civil citations and other alternatives.

If the “Roadmap” is implemented, juvenile crime will decline in Duval, costs will be curbed and more young men and women will become productive citizens.

JUVENILE DETENTION ALTERNATIVE INITIATIVE

  • Providing intervention for children outside of secure detention leads to more positive outcomes in most cases.
  • Detention makes it less likely the juvenile will complete high school, find a job or form a stable family, and more likely of being re-arrested and abusing drugs or alcohol.
  • Keys to success include collaboration among agencies, improving admission screening and intensive monitoring of detention facilities.
  • Success also requires attention to combating racial disparities and ensuring a level playing field for children of color.

Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Infographic
Youth in prisons