Fewer Florida teens locked up, fewer lives lost to crime

The Palm Beach PostJuly 5, 2014 

One of the great, rarely told stories of the past few years is the dramatic drop in juvenile crime and the number of youths being locked up.

This sea change is occurring around the nation, but the trend is particularly pronounced in Florida, which long had one of the nation's highest youth incarceration rates.

One of the most striking aspects of this turnaround here has been its speed. Between 2009 and 2013, juvenile arrests in Florida dropped nearly 40 percent. The number of children and teens locked up fell by more than half.

It isn't just that fewer teens are committing crimes. Much of the drop is due to a change in philosophy about how the state should deal with juvenile crime.

Rather than push teens into detention centers for nonviolent infractions, more are being steered away from formal arrests and convictions and toward alternatives that keep them out of the criminal justice system.

More and more academic research shows why this philosophical shift is so important. A study released last week by the nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs Inc. is the latest to underscore that locking up teens increases the likelihood that they will commit future crimes.

The youth advocacy group's report stresses the importance of community ties on children's development, arguing that state institutions "provide virtually none of the supports the community can."

Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice has been working to keep more young offenders in their homes and communities. Many teens who once would have been sent to the state's juvenile detention centers are instead sent home, where they may be required to do community service and restitution and receive counseling. Students deemed at risk for criminal behavior are being sought out more often before the fact.

Authorities also have more flexibility now to issue civil citations for some crimes instead of making arrests, preventing many youths from entering the criminal justice system at all.

At middle and high schools, administrators are being encouraged to diminish the use of arrests as punishment. Between 2005 and 2012, the number of students arrested at Florida schools fell by half.

It's not all good news, however. One of the biggest problems among youth offenders -- the tendency to keep committing crimes even after being caught -- is also one of the most stubborn. While crime and arrest rates are down, the recidivism rate among Florida youths has barely budged. In 2012, by some measures, it was still above 60 percent. State officials hope to discourage repeat offenders with services better tailored to their individual problems, but recidivism will be tough to curb.

Much of the credit for the state's progress in reducing arrests and detention rates goes to DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, who stepped down this week. But the agency's new secretary has vowed to continue with the same reforms, and Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bill codifying many of the department's new priorities into law.

These reforms save lots of money. But far more important is the opportunity to redirect children's futures.

As the DJJ concluded in a report last year, "Removing children from their home and confining them with other delinquent youth often only serves to create an environment where they learn to be better criminals."

As Florida moves away from this failed model, fewer children will be lost to errant lives.

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