Florida juvenile justice system rightly under microscope

March 9, 2014 

The Florida Legislature is back in session. Bay News 9 Photo

Florida's juvenile justice system is poised for a transformation this legislative session. While the reasons behind reform appear less than altruistic, the results will be laudable if passed into law.

The system is simply too expensive -- both in terms of money and young lives.

The Legislature is considering measures to emphasize crime prevention and offender diversion and rehabilitation.

The rising state costs of juvenile detention and allegations of abuse and lax oversight against a for-profit prison company that operates private juvenile centers provide strong motivation for reform.

But that matters not as county budgets and nonviolent offenders would come out winners.

Detention costs

The state Department of Juvenile Justice and the Legislature have no choice on one issue after losing a key court decision last year. DJJ began shifting costs to counties in 2004. The ruling determined the state is overcharging counties for juvenile detention. The judge found that DJJ's rule forcing counties to pay 75 percent of detention costs was invalid, and counties were only responsible for 32 percent.

Manatee County, a party in the lawsuit against the state, will benefit by paying far less once the Legislature approves a new formula.

That money, which comes from a special millage tax dedicated to children's services, will be spent on its intended purpose.

Diversion programs

Manatee County has proven the value of diversion programs with a successful Teen Court and Teen Court Too. Both are designed to halt delinquent behavior before youth establish a pattern and continue breaking the law.

The twin programs give first-time, 10- to 17-year-old juveniles involved in minor crimes a second chance while holding them accountable for their actions.

Young people serve as jurors and determine sentences, which include community service and jury duties. Should the guilty party fail to complete the sanctions, the offender is sent back to Juvenile Court.

Manatee County also offers an array of crime prevention, intervention and treatment programs to help juveniles.

By steering young offenders away from incarceration, the savings are tremendous. The average cost of housing a juvenile in a detention center is $40,873 annually, while prevention and diversion services cost only $2,000.

By beefing up those services, the state will continue to cut costs -- a point not lost on lawmakers.

Life sentences

The Legislature must also quit dragging out a decision on sentencing guidelines for underage offenders convicted of serious felonies and tried as adults.

For the past three years, lawmakers failed to pass legislation in order to comply with a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that banned the imposition of life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.

This is an appalling miscarriage of justice, especially considering Florida has far more juvenile offenders serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes -- some 77 at the time of the 2010 ruling -- than any other state.

A Senate bill is advancing, providing serious juvenile offenders a review hearing after 20 years and another after 30 years. In murder cases, hearing dates would be years later.

It's past time for the Legislature to act on this. These juveniles deserve the opportunity to prove they are not a threat to society.

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