Juvenile Justice Makes a Wrong Turn

At a time when juvenile crime continues its downward trend, and policy could and should focus on improving and fixing long-standing service gaps and inequities, recent legislative action inexplicitly turned its attention to discarded practices and failed remedies:

  • The highly successful civil citation program is shifting to one that has the words “delinquency and pre-arrest” in the title.  Civil citation was supported in its updated passage a decade ago by thousands of citizens, parents and faith-based advocates.  It purposely prevented arrests while omitting stigmatizing labels.
  • Secure detention use will again expand rather than investing in community based programs to prevent it or stop the revolving detention door .
  • There is no responsibility or accountability for parents or adults who carelessly leave guns lying around the house but children as young as 8 can be charged with a felony and committed to secure detention for having a gun in their possession. Recently, it was widely reported a mother sent a gun to school in her child’s lunchbox.


Policymakers were ill-advised

Make no mistake, there’s a serious problem regarding gun violence.   Most of us live in fear of it.  The headlines though become murky when 18 and 19 year-olds are referred to as “teenagers.”   In Florida criminal law, a child becomes an adult at 18.  Regardless, HB 1181 (the “gun bill”) as passed was not a gun bill at all.   It lacked preventive measures, restitution, and shared responsibility and replaced them with detention and serious felony charges for possession only, impacting the rest of a child’s life.  Sadly, policymakers were ill-advised and it resulted in a rush to judgment.


Injustice by geography getting worse

  • Nothing in HB 1181 or other recent juvenile justice policy addresses the serious problem of “injustice by geography”. This occurs when laws are enforced differently depending in which city, county or zip code a child lives.  An analysis by American Children’s Campaign found some troubling trends:
  • Uneven use of civil citations: Whether a child is arrested or offered an alternative to arrest (civil citations) for eligible offenses fluctuates wildly among Florida counties – from zero to 95%. Significant disparities exist among schools.  Is the goal statewide consistency in response to certain youthful behaviors or juvenile justice fiefdoms?
  • Child Baker Acts have more than doubled and are being misused: In the last 20 years, the rate of Baker Act for children under 18 increased from 547 per 100,000 in 2001-02 to 1,232 per 100,000 (2020-21), an increase of 125%. Nearly 36,000 Florida children are Baker Acted each year. It appears from available data that most children referred for professional examination are not a threat to themselves or others.   They are returned home to their parents or guardians.
  • Nine of 67 counties make up more than 50% of all youth Baker Acted in Florida.
  • Juvenile fines and fees hurt justice-involved children and families: Only 11% of the $5.1 million in juvenile fines and fees assessed against Florida youth were collected. Unpaid balances push families further into debt, and the cost of collections typically exceeds the revenue. Elongated periods on community probation leads to recidivism and detention.
  • Disappearance of community-based programs – A significant decline of community-based intervention and therapeutic programs frustrates parents looking for help for their children. In addition, children leaving secure juvenile detention do not receive services which leads to a revolving door of rearrests and subsequent detentions.


Citizens turning concerns into action

According to American Children’s Campaign President Roy Miller, the past legislative session brought new momentum to the need for citizens and parents to be more engaged.  “Quite honestly, HB 1181 was a  wakeup call.  It is a mindset that threatens to erase the significant progress in smart justice for nearly two decades,” stated Miller.  “Instead of policymakers hearing it’s long past time to invest in juvenile justice at the community level, replacing millions of dollars lost to adult corrections, they were advised  to batten down the hatches, use harsher terms, and lock kids up.  It didn’t work in the past and won’t work in the future either.”