Two Sister States Are Worlds Apart on Juvenile Justice Issues

California and Florida are practically sister states. Both are major tourist destinations and home to numerous celebrities. Aside from that, they have thriving multi-billion dollar agricultural interests with oranges, avocados, etc. jockeying for coveted market share. These states are also remarkably long with different community influences, biospheres, and terrain to contend with. In fact, both are so long that one could almost reach Chicago from Pensacola in the same time and length of travel as it would take to drive to Key West. In regards to cultural influences, both have unusually large Asian, Hispanic, and Native American influences. Indeed, numerous similarities abound between the two. However, when it comes to Juvenile Justice issues, these two sister states are worlds apart.

Starting in the 1990s, both states seemed to be traveling along the same path. The “Super Predator” myth first posited by Professor John DiIulio, Jr., a well-noted author and criminologist, caught the public in a frenzy that led to more and more arrests of teen and pre-teen boys for seemingly innocuous offenses. Federally funded School Resource Officers filled the schools and only helped to bolster the number of juveniles being processed through the courts – many tried as adults. Then, a massive series of events occurred in 2009 that fundamentally changed the two states and put them on drastically different paths.

While Florida was devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to the arrest and incarceration of minors at alarming rates, California schools were looking at the mass disparity in suspension and expulsion rates concerning low-performing students. In what is now known as the School-to-Prison Pipeline, sometimes referred to in a slightly different manner as the Test-to-Prison Pipeline, California school officials noticed that disparate suspensions and expulsions were also tied to drop-out rates. Local health officials also chimed-in noting that drop-out students cost a community added millions in extra services for healthcare, job training, chemical dependence issues, incarceration, and housing. These same officials also noted national figures showing that over 857 students drop out of school each day while Center for Disease Control reports that some 4,500 at-risk juveniles commit suicide each year.

So, what did the California school districts do differently from Florida school systems? While both adopted pro-Restorative Justice laws to handle this issue – California actually embraced the new Collaborative Justice practices. In California’s eighth largest school system, the San Diego Unified School District, the number of suspensions, expulsions, and drop-outs plummeted to record lows. The use of Peer Mediation, Juvenile Justice panels, Native American-based Circle Justice practices, and other Collaborative Justice practices in cities like Oakland, Carlsbad, etc. showed similar results.

Today, once troubled school districts in California are now seeing positive change. Not only are drop-out rates lowering and student retention rates rising, but there are other positive benefits being noticed. Most notably, these districts are seeing student performance increase while student tardiness and absenteeism is plummeting. Though things are far from perfect, the changes are remarkable and noticeable by both staff and students in the schools.

The same cannot be said for Florida. While California was re-evaluating juvenile-based offenses to keep children out of courts and detention facilities – Florida was going full steam ahead. In the Santa Rosa County School District, law enforcement officers hauled off one student on felony bomb threat charges for simply drawing a picture in class out of boredom. This same case was later lowered to the misdemeanor charge of pulling a false fire alarm. Such overzealous arrests and rampant abuse of prosecutorial power choked down the courts and called for more and more detention facilities to be erected. This created a culture of abuse and neglect in the facilities.

Last year was particularly trying for juveniles in Florida. No other major populated state has as many per capita annual arrests for juveniles as Florida does. In 2012, some 58,000 juveniles were arrested – a rate 48 times higher than the national average. At the Milton Girls Juvenile Residential Facility, a 15-year-old inmate was brutally attacked and pinned down by guards with no provocation while a male psychological technician was sexually molesting other girls in a different area of the facility. Just a year prior, at the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center, an inmate, Eric Perez, passed away due to a massive brain hemorrhage while guards looked-on and refused to take action. Even though the grand jury recently gave a scathing condemnation against the Department of Juvenile Justice, no criminal charges could be filed since such facilities are presently exempt from most state child abuse and child neglect laws.

Sadly, there is now a stalled bill that would have held officials more accountable. Like California, there are pro-Collaborative Justice laws on the books already in Florida. Most notably, §985.155 which allows the State Attorney of each circuit to establish community-based Neighborhood Restorative Justice Centers. Unfortunately, in a recent poll of Florida’s State Attorney offices, all of the respondents said they refused to use the NRJCs because they favored traditional prosecution and fee-based diversionary practices. Legislators have also failed their constituents by refusing to modify the language of §985.155 to take NRJCs out of the hands of the State Attorneys and put them under the control of the chief judge of each county.

To date, public outcry on the offenses of the DJJ has been light at best. Media sources fail to keep this issue fresh and current. However, as California schools continue to improve, one can only hope that Florida officials will look to their sister state and see that Collaborative Justice practices are safe, proven, and effective when dealing with juvenile offenders.

By: Ken Johnson

Ken Johnson is a lecturer and writer on culture and conflict issues. He holds certification from the Florida Supreme Court as a County Court Mediator and specialized training in Restorative Justice from the College of Professional Studies at the University of West Florida. He is also the author of a soon to be released book on the topic of Collaborative Justice in the school system. For his good works, Ken was commissioned in 2005 as a Kentucky Colonel.

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