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Pensacola News Journal: Pensacola hosts juvenile justice town hall meeting

http://www.pnj.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013302010022

Feb. 1, 2013

Written by Eric Heisig

Addressing participants at the Roadmap Town Hall meeting in Pensacola Thursday night

Ben Twingley/btwingley@pnj.com

Wansley Walters, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary, speaks during a Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Town Hall Meeting at the Jean and Paul Amos Performance Studio at Pensacola State College.

During a town hall meeting hosted by the state Department of Juvenile Justice on Thursday, many of those who spoke said there isn’t enough being done to prevent children from entering the juvenile justice system.

“I’m concerned about it because it’s my community that’s involved in it, and we need to do something to turn this around,” said Gerald Wingate, a Pensacola city councilman and a member of the local Juvenile Justice Council, adding that the juvenile justice system is a “pipeline to the prison system.”

The event was held at the Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio on Pensacola State College’s. DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters led the meeting, which was designed to lay out the department’s plan for reform in the statewide juvenile justice system.

The reforms, which Walters hopes to craft and implement within the next two years, would ideally reduce the number of juvenile offenders statewide and change the sentences mandated for lower-level crimes committed by juveniles. Specifically, the department wants to reduce the number of juveniles involved in the state system by 5 percent during this year.

“What we’re trying to do is give children the right service at the right time,” Walters said.

Walters and her department have been talking about this reform for some time, and Pensacola was the latest stop on a town hall circuit they have been on since December.

The concerns those in attendance brought up covered a wide range of topics: from low salaries in many privately run detention centers to more educational opportunities for young students.

But one of the biggest topics discussed was the implementation of a civil-citation program, which has been discussed in the past but not implemented in Escambia County.

Similar programs have prevented first-time juvenile offenders who commit a misdemeanor from being arrested and instead be punished through other means.

Walters and local Chief Probation Officer Paul Wallis said they are close to implementing the program in the local school system.

Many of the sentiments expressed on Thursday night echo the concerns brought up in recent weeks by the Escambia County Youth Justice Coalition, a recently formed local child advocacy group.

Many of those concerns were sparked by a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year, which says, in part, that Escambia County's black students are subjected to far harsher discipline than their white counterparts.

Sara Latshaw, a coalition member and a regional organizer for Florida’s American Civil Liberties Union, said the ACLU supports much of the DJJ’s reform package, though it hopes the reforms would be more ambitious.

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