Operation Even Justice:
Juvenile Justice and Mental Health Reform

Why It Matters

Florida’s juvenile justice system contains practices that lead to uneven justice and deeper child trauma.


The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to support kids who have made youthful mistakes to get back on the right path in an accountable way – and even help them from straying in the first place. Florida remains far from a uniform and equitable application of justice.

Where Florida Stands

0 %

Minority youth are disproportionately arrested, accounting for 2 out of every 3 arrests

0 %

Juveniles of color in Florida’s justice system account for the majority of youth transferred to adult court

1 to 95%

The wide disparity in issuing civil citations at the county level causes “injustice by geography”


Florida kids were “Baker Acted” in 2021. About half were elementary to middle school age. A vast majority were NOT determined to be a threat to themselves or others.

Our Priorities

Arrests have lifelong consequences for children, while civil citation (alternatives to arrest) hold kids accountable without saddling them an arrest record. A significant disparity exists in the utilization of civil citations by Florida counties – currently ranging from 0 – 95%. Policies that set specific guidelines or standardize the utilization of civil citations would ensure youth experience consistency based on behavior and not related to location.

According to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, over 65% of the youth in its care have a mental illness or substance abuse problem. Examined more closely, the data shows that 32.9% of all youth in custody have a history of mental health problems and 53.4% are currently using drugs. These numbers are disproportionately higher for girls with 48.8% of girls in custody having a history of mental health issues, and 55.7% abusing substances.

Treating mental health and substance abuse issues before a child enters the justice system could save the state an estimated $53,665 per youth. It would also avoid worsening mental health, as youth generally develop trauma and trauma-induced disorders like PTSD from their time spent in juvenile justice or exacerbate current behavioral health problems.

The use of Florida’s Baker Act statewide to subject children to an involuntary psychological examination has skyrocketed and continues to increase. In FY 2020-2021, 38,557 minors were transported to an involuntary examination – up from roughly 37,000 in 2019. The use of the Baker Act is closely aligned with the non-use of civil citations, lack of timely access to crisis intervention teams, and the non-use of school based mental health services and/or alternatives such as in-school suspension. The trend line suggests the Baker Act is becoming a preferred choice to remove “unruly” kids from school grounds and even sweep up children with Individual Education Plans in specialized classrooms. Observers suggest the escalating Baker Act use is an unintended consequences of policies from the previous decade aimed at shutting down the School to Prison (Detention) pipeline.

Due to its trauma inducing and hurtful outcomes, the Baker Act should be employed only when absolutely necessary. Due to most law enforcement protocols, when the Baker Act use is put into motion, students are handcuffed and removed from school in police cars in front of their peers. Many cases have become public such as a parent of a special needs child being on the scene and explaining the child’s behavior to no avail. After an involuntary examination, and its high rate of determination that the child does NOT qualify to be treated under the Baker Act, children can experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), general anxiety, separation anxiety, and depression – long after the experience. Many do not return to the same school in fear of being bullied or isolated. They fall behind and experience educational disruption, while triggering a lasting fear of medical professionals, law enforcement, and adults.

Few children are able to pay the fines and fees associated with contact with the juvenile justice system and the family is often too financially strapped to pay either. This results in harm to children’s well-being and research consistently shows a negative impact on public safety as well. For example, professionals report that children receive extended probation and placement with a likelihood of violating another law, can’t expunge their records, face civil judgment, and have drivers’ licenses denied or suspended. This profoundly hurts children in their ability to focus on their education, maintain jobs, and help their families avoid homelessness.

Proven alternatives exist to hold youth accountable and require community reparations, including apologies to victims, without requiring youth and their families to go into debt, hounded by collection agencies and hit with cost increases due to non-payment. The disparity is great in family income and the problems associated with the application of fine and fees.