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Juvenile Injustice
Ignore or Punish

Not as uncommon as you'd think

The lesson was learned a century ago with Illinois’ and Colorado’s first “Children’s Court”: It’s more humane and more effective to treat young offenders less punishingly than adults. The lesson was unlearned in the 1990s when warnings of a coming wave of juvenile “super-predators” led lawmakers in most states, Florida busily among them, to build juvenile lock-ups and “boot camps,” harsh-up punishments and charge more children as adults. The warnings originated almost exclusively from John Dilulio, the political scientist who briefly became President Bush’s faith-based initiatives director in 2001.

The super-predators never materialized, demonstrably discrediting Dilulio’s theory. But the 1990s boom in lesser young offenders going to jail rippled into a large overall increase in adult lock-ups. Whether the two are related is unclear, although a 2004 National Institute of Health report on violence and youths concluded that incarceration and get-tough programs not only aren’t the best way to treat delinquent children. They often make matters worse by bringing together young people inclined toward violence. “The more sophisticated instruct the more naïve in precisely the behavior that the intervener wishes to prevent,” the NIH report said.

If the get-tough approach was designed to keep young offenders from graduating into adult criminals, it’s not working. Between 1996 and 2005, Florida’s population increased 15 percent. Its county-jail population increased 26 percent, while the state-prison population increased 38 percent. Volusia and Flagler counties’ combined populations increased 17 percent. Their county-jail population increased 24 percent. Relative to the 1970s and 1980s, those haven’t been high-crime years. They’ve been high-punishment years, for youth offenders especially.

Now the lesson is being learned all over again, as the NIH report notes: “Programs that seek to prevent violence through fear and tough treatment appear ineffective. Intensive programs that aim at developing skills and competencies can work.” Those programs aren’t nearly as abundant as they should be. But they exist. In Volusia County, they include, among others, the ACT Corp.’ services for runaways, truants and “ungovernable youths,” the Pace Center for Girls designed specifically to help at-risk girls from constructively avoiding the juvenile justice system, the Stewart-Marchman Center for Chemical Independence, and such “diversion” programs as Teen Court and community arbitration.

To steer children in trouble in the right direction, several counties, Volusia and Flagler among them, have a Juvenile Assessment Center. Youths age 10-17 in some kind of trouble are brought in by police or other authorities, including parents or guardians — not necessarily to be locked up, but to be evaluated, along with their families if necessary, for help that might keep them from entering the juvenile justice system. Volusia and Flagler’s center has operated for 10 years, but not as the kind of full-service center it should have been, says Rick Rademacher, its director until the end of May.

In a full-service center (like the one in Seminole County) all youths brought in would be immediately evaluated for a series of risks and needs to produce what Rademacher describes as “a thumbnail sketch on who you are and why ended up here.” The one-stop shop would allow center staff to look at the child’s circumstances whole and settle on the most productive course. Currently, about 375 to 400 youths are brought in to the center every month. Rademacher says if the center was fully staffed, it would serve closer to 500 youths. Still, for a third of the children brought to the center, at least until the end of May, enough screening was available to determine that court wasn’t their best option.

Now, the Juvenile Assessment Center is about to change mission because the Department of Juvenile Justice’s seed money for the assessment center never bore fruit: Local law enforcement and government agencies haven’t picked up their share of the burden to keep the place viable. So the assessment part is being diminished. The detention part is being emphasized, if only by default. In coming months (the Department of Juvenile Justice hasn’t made clear exactly when) the center will be turned into a call center exclusively, which means juveniles who don’t qualify for detention could not be brought in. Flagler and Volusia County are about to go down the path taken by Duvall County — which Duvall now regrets.

Duvall set up its Juvenile Assessment Center in the mid-1990s. Over the years it lost its various partners including, in April 2003, the corrections officers provided by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. (Duvall never formally set up the kind of advisory committee that helps bind the partners to their mission.) That left the facility without security. The Department of Juvenile Justice kept contributing in-kind services and staff to the center, but in June 2005, two youths escaped from the facility. By last January, the assessment center was turned into a call center exclusively. The number of youths brought in dropped by 20 percent, says Rob Charlton, assistant chief probation officer for the Department of Juvenile Justice in the Duvall district, and the current administrator of the call center.

A call center is more efficient to administer, Charlton says, but for the community, it’s a step back. It forces police officers to make judgment calls they shouldn’t: Say an officer is called to a school. A youth has been disruptive in an assembly. The youth’s parents are unreachable. If a fully operational juvenile assessment center was in place, the officer could drop him off there. The center would do the rest. In a call-center situation, the officer has to call in to determine if the youth is eligible to be detained. If, as in many instances involving first or minor offenses, the youth isn’t eligible, he becomes the officer’s responsibility until the youth can be released to an adult. Officers don’t like to take on that baby sitting role. Nor does it benefit their beat: An officer responsible for the custody of a child for several hours means an officer pulled off patrol. That reduces the incentive for officers, Charlton says, to pick up youths in trouble.

Charlton, echoing Rich Rademacher, notes that perhaps too many youths were being picked up for minor offenses in the past. But both spoke of the assessment center as a screening process that could determine underlying problems in youths’ lives — the kind of problems which, if detected early, could be addressed outside of the court system before they become more serious and less tractable. Eliminating the assessment center, in sum, eliminates a powerful diagnostic and preventive component in youths’ risky behavior.

Earlier this year, Duvall officials lobbied the Legislature for a $3.5 million grant to re-start a full-service assessment center. Jacksonville’s mayor pledged a $500,000 contribution. The Legislature whittled down the grant request to $1.5 million — then let it drop entirely. With tax reform about to reconfigure local governments’ revenue, even the $500,000 pledge from Jacksonville was withdrawn. You hear the same story from local law enforcement officials in Volusia and Flagler counties. They predict budget cuts, so they don’t want to commit to an assessment center even as they point with envy to Seminole County’s 10-year-old, $750,000 operation, which the county commission and the sheriff underwrite.

Mark Rehder, the manager of Seminole’s assessment center, says not having a full-service center is a false cost saving. A juvenile who ends up incarcerated will end up costing the state, on average, about $200,000 over the life of that inmate’s dependence on the system. (It costs the state $18,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison, not counting previous costs to the justice system, lost wages and productivity, lost tax contributions, and whatever intangible losses accrue from the withdrawal of an individual from his family and community.) Preventing incarceration through early intervention, as assessment centers are designed to do, means every child steered back to a healthier lifestyle saves the state that $200,000. Compared to that, a $750,000 operation is a great buy.

But the history of juvenile justice is one of lessons learned the hard way — punishing eras yield more hardened criminals than reformed youths, so more constructive alternatives are introduced — only to be unlearned by short-term concerns over budgets or the lure of quick fixes. In Florida these days, both contradictory currents run strong. Youths are still getting punished more harshly and in greater proportions than in most states. (According to a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida has the third-highest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation, after South Dakota and Wyoming.) But there’s also been a greater, if half-hearted, willingness to seek alternatives to outright incarceration: The state’s juvenile-detention rate declined after 1997, while the commitment rate, which includes juveniles committed to shelters, group homes, ranches and boot camps, rose.

The contradictions continue. Overall, far too many youths are ending up in lock-up in Florida regardless. Eliminating full-service juvenile assessment centers won’t improve those numbers. Daytona’s and Jacksonville’s centers still operate as detention’s first stop. It’s the alternatives that are once again being scrapped. The reasons behind the shrug-off should embarrass local government and law enforcement officials. The consequences of their myopia will continue to cheat troubled youths of the attention that mere detention cannot provide, in exchange for neglect or punishments most don’t deserve.

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