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Tackling Juvenile Injustice in Duval County

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When Jacksonville residents think of juvenile justice, they remember 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez being charged as an adult in the 2011 death of his 2-year-old half-brother. The case spurred outrage, triggered national media coverage and a Change.org petition urging State Attorney Angela Corey not to try Fernandez as an adult that garnered nearly 200,000 signatures. The direct file process by which children like Fernandez are charged in adult court is one of many topics that will be discussed at an upcoming forum on juvenile delinquency.

On March 29, the Jacksonville Center for Children’s Rights, a project of The Children’s Rights Initiative of Jacksonville, will co-host a panel discussion on juvenile justice at Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business. The Public Defender’s Office, Florida Coastal School of Law, Jacksonville’s Children’s Ombudsman, the ACLU and Three Rivers Legal Services are co-sponsors of the event, titled, “904-DATA: Delinquent Acts, Community Answers.”

Assistant Public Defender Rob Mason, who directs the Public Defender’s juvenile division and serves on the board of directors for Jacksonville’s System of Care Initiative, as well as numerous other legal and community organizations, will lend his 26 years of experience and expertise to the event. Mason is concerned about the potential for lifelong consequences for children entering the delinquency system.

“When kids get arrested,” he said, “it creates a permanent record.” He pointed out that those records don’t always get expunged or sealed and, while they are supposed to be confidential, private companies often harvest arrest information and sell it to prospective employers. Information about adjudications of delinquency, which are not considered as serious as “criminal convictions,” can nevertheless affect applications for military service and other specific jobs, eligibility for public assistance or public housing, immigration status, and, under certain circumstances, eligibility for financial aid for college.

When it comes to the grown-up consequences of getting arrested, Garry Bevel, the Children’s Ombudsman for Jacksonville’s System of Care, said, “We are treating children like adults, but not in terms of power, influence, or voice.”

“We won’t have a future if we keep locking kids up,” said Natishia June, regional organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northeast Florida. June, Mason, Bevel, and Assistant Public Defender Betsy Dobbins told Folio Weekly Magazine that they’re taking a good, hard look at what the numbers are telling them about juvenile justice in Jacksonville.

“Numbers don’t lie,” said June. And the numbers are leading advocates to question Jacksonville’s approach to juvenile justice. “We need to talk about what they’re telling us,” she added.

Information from Department of Juvenile Justice records can give us a starting point to talk about the data, June said.

For example, Duval’s juvenile commitment rate is nearly twice the state average. The community’s high-risk commitments for juvenile offenders are three times the state rate, and Duval’s maximum risk placements – the most restrictive commitment program for juvenile offenders – occur 4.5 times more than Florida’s rate. Duval also outnumbers the statewide rate of direct file cases by 12 percent.

Florida is one of only 15 states that mandates children are charged as adults in some circumstances, Mason said, and 12 of those 15 states have processes for removing adult charges to juvenile court. Florida is among the three that do not. The statute also outlines circumstances where adult charges may be brought against children, at the prosecutor’s discretion. And that’s where the system loses its systematic nature, according to Human Rights Watch. In its 2014 report on Florida direct-file cases, “Branded for Life,” HRW researchers wrote:

[T]he overwhelming power Florida has handed to prosecutors is playing out in arbitrary and unjust ways. Florida’s judicial circuits send arrested children to adult courts at vastly different rates. This variation cannot be explained by the seriousness of offenses, the size of circuit youth populations, or other data Human Rights Watch examined. Even more disturbingly, once children are charged in adult court, some Florida circuits impose severe adult penalties at frequencies that are out of proportion to the levels of youth crime in those circuits.

Mason maintains that defense attorneys have no way to challenge adult charges in court, because the law gives prosecutors all the discretion.

“Judges are just ratifying the plea bargains,” he said. Given the choice between adult and juvenile sanctions, children often plead out before the discovery phase, when evidence would be presented. While Mason and other advocates believe children should be given a hearing to determine whether they’re charged as juveniles or adults, proposed legislation reflecting that change flopped in the Florida’s House of Representatives.

“Judges have the discretion in adult court to impose juvenile and/or adult sanctions,” said Assistant State Attorney Julie Taylor, who directs juvenile prosecutions and county court for the Office of the State Attorney.

“We have to look at the discretionary points in the system and ask, ‘Why does this child get arrested when another doesn’t?’” Dobbins said.

Dobbins and Bevel said that room for discretion usually occurs at the first responder level and the zero tolerance approaches that have characterized school discipline policies don’t help. Dobbins said that, for example, a disabled child having a tantrum need not enter the juvenile justice system for “battery on a school employee.”

Other factors play in to children’s behaviors: mental health issues, cognitive disabilities, trauma, and the stress of poverty. June said that many children from low-income, high-crime neighborhoods describe their experience as being “shell-shocked.”

“That is 100 percent affecting your development, your ability to attach,” June said.

“Arming people with the right information can go a long way,” Bevel said. The Children’s Rights Initiative now educates high school principals on how to handle disciplinary problems without an arrest.

In partnership with Duval County Public Schools, Bevel and Dobbins have formed “Due Process Peer Advocacy” programs at Wolfson and Lee High Schools.

“We’re expecting children to obey the laws without teaching them about civic processes,” Bevel said.

They are also training parent and community stakeholders and guardian ad litem volunteers.

June said that the sheriff’s policy shift to using civil citations for nonviolent juvenile offenders holds children responsible for their behaviors in a manner that educates them and connects them to the community, without the serious consequences of an arrest and criminal charge. Jacksonville’s ICARE, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, has pushed for years to increase use of civil citations, which refer children to Teen Court, Neighborhood Accountability Boards, and other diversionary programs.

“We need to put our energy into things that do work, where we’re not putting children into the deep end of the system,” June said.

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“904-DATA: Delinquent Acts, Community Answers” is held 6 p.m. March 29 at Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business, 2800 University Blvd N., Arlington. Doors open
at 5:30 p.m.

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