When Kids Commit Crimes

It’s a problem: What is the best course to 
 follow when teenage boys and girls break 
the law?

Two of the speakers scheduled to make presentations at the Oct. 26 TEDx Jacksonville Connecting Currents believe the present course of locking up wayward juveniles and throwing away the key is all wrong.

Hank Coxe III and Lawanda Ravoira, both experienced in dealing with Florida’s juveniles, will express their views along with nine other speakers covering a wide variety of topics ranging from hunger to government to the interplay of simple human interactions during the second year of TEDx Jacksonville.

TEDx is a local, self-organized event that brings people together, based on the popular TED talks. TED is an acronym for technology, entertainment and design and the x means it is a local event, licensed by TED. The license 
is free, but organizers have to follow strict TED guidelines.

The number of tickets is limited, and the WJCT sound stage seats only 320 people. TEDx officials are accepting applications “to build a dynamic and diverse audience with broad interests, expertise and perspectives.” Event organizers promise a thorough review of each application and will extend invitations to purchase tickets based on the merits of the applications and the special talents audience members can bring to the event. Tickets are $100, which includes meals and snacks.

Coxe was one of a group of local defense attorneys who worked out the deal with prosecutors preventing Cristian Fernandez from spending much of his life in prison. Coxe will speak on the way youth are imprisoned in Florida. Coxe said he believes it is “fundamentally contrary to a truly civilized society” to imprison so many young offenders.

Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, said North Florida sends too many young girls to youth detention facilities and suggested changes are needed to the system.

Fernandez was 12 when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 2-year-old half-brother, David Galarriago, who died of head injuries in March 2010 after prosecutors said Fernandez slammed his head into a bookshelf.

The local defense team took over the case from Public Defender Matt Shirk in 2012. That change came after Shirk withdrew from the case at the request of Fernandez’s representatives after he had been unable to negotiate a plea deal.

“We started out to salvage a normal life for Cristian Fernandez, and we accomplished what we set out to do,” Coxe said at the time of the boy’s guilty plea to lesser charges. 
”It was an injustice to charge him with first-degree murder as an adult and that injustice is over with.”

Fernandez pleaded guilty in February to charges of manslaughter and aggravated battery and he will remain in the Duval County Detention Center until his 19th birthday in 2018.

When asked about the state’s decision 
to charge the youth with first-degree murder, Coxe said it was “unconscionable.” If Fernandez had been convicted at trial, he would have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole. Coxe said it’s time for the government and society to start understanding that adolescent brains are not developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions.

Coxe began seriously thinking about the issue of juvenile justice when helping appellate attorney Bryan Gowdy and some other local attorneys with Terrance Jamar Graham v. Florida, a case based in Jacksonville. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life in prison.

Graham was 16 when he committed armed burglary. Under a plea agreement, the trial court sentenced him to probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. Later, the court ruled that Graham had violated the terms of his probation, adjudicated him guilty of the earlier charges, revoked his probation, and sentenced him to life in prison for the burglary. Because Florida had abolished its parole system, the life sentence left Graham with no possibility of release.

While that case was pending, Fernandez was charged with first-degree murder.

“We felt it was wrong and offered our assistance to the public defender, and I recruited some additional lawyers,” Coxe said.

Other attorneys included Buddy Schultz and Adam Blank of Holland & Knight, Melissa Nelson and Nancy Johnson of McGuire Woods, Gray Thomas of the Offices of Gray Thomas, and Bryan Gowdy of Creed & Gowdy.

It’s time the government got rid of “the draconian approach of holding them to adult standards despite their brain development.” It’s not an issue of right or wrong, he said.

“It’s a brain issue — the inability to understand consequences of what you are doing,” said Coxe, former president of the Florida Bar and a member of The Florida Innocence Commission and the Florida Judicial Nominating Commission.

Ravoira’s mission at the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center is “to be a voice for 
girls and young women” and prevent them from entering the juvenile justice and foster care centers.

The center and Ravoira were deeply involved in working with Fernandez’s mother, Biannela Susana. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with credit for two years served, and then was placed on probation after her guilty plea on charges of aggravated manslaughter. She is beginning work as an administrative assistant at the center in November and starts college next spring at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

“The system failed her and her children,” said Ravoira, who met with Susana weekly while she was awaiting sentencing.

The number of girls entering the juvenile justice system is increasing, now representing 30 percent of the juveniles arrested in both Jacksonville and the state.

“A girl’s pathway into the juvenile justice system is distinctly different,” Ravoira said. “For most girls, there is a very low public safety risk and a very high need.”

“As many as 70 to 92 percent of the girls have a history of sexual exploitation, trauma, sexual abuse, and this trauma is driving their behavior,” she said.

In many cases, the only law they violated was running away from home to get away from an abusive situation.

“Our First Coast locks up more girls than any other counties in Florida,” she said, referring to Duval, Clay, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

“We have to look at the punitive approach in our community,” she said. “We need to provide interventions to what is appropriate, what is driving their behavior.”

According to statistics provided by the Policy Center, 4,150 youths from the First Coast were arrested in fiscal year 2011-’12. Seventy percent were boys, and 30 percent were girls.

Girls are more likely to attempt suicide and to have witnessed or been victims of violence, physical abuse and sexual abuse than are boys, she said.

Many of the girls do not need to be locked up, but instead need mental health services.

“There is a lack of services and judges get frustrated when they see a girl in need. There is a myth if they send them to residential lockup treatment facility, they will be treated,” she said. “This is not what happens in these facilities.”

Ravoira is a national expert, author, researcher and trainer on issues specific to justice-involved girls. She is leading the Justice for Girls Campaign, a reform effort in Florida for girls and young women in the juvenile justice system.

Ravoira spent 13 years as president and CEO of PACE Center for Girls Inc., a statewide not-for-profit organization that provides gender-responsive, comprehensive educational, therapeutic and transitional support services to 4,500 at-risk girls per year.

“The goal of the center,” she said, “is putting girls on the way to success.”