Florida bill seeks to increase number of children in juvenile detention

Get smarter, not tougher on juvenile offenders

http://www.palmbeachpost.com/opinion/content/opinion/epaper/2008/03/11/a14a_leadedit_djj_0311.html

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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(Palm Beach Post) – Police throughout Palm Beach County arrested 31,920 children in 2005, including two as young as 8 years old. Last year, there were 12,727 children taken into custody, the youngest 10 years old. Those numbers show fewer children entering the juvenile justice system – a move in the right direction. Legislation being considered by House and Senate committees would reverse that trend – statewide.

House Bill 273, sponsored by Rep. Sandra Adams, R-Oviedo, "casts a wider net over children who are alleged to have committed a delinquent act," Children’s Campaign Inc. officials correctly assessed, "and expands the criteria under which they may be placed in detention and the length of time in which they could remain in detention." In other words, more children could be detained and for longer periods of time.

The legislation would allow the courts to detain children – instead of releasing them, as is most common now – until their court hearings. The bill also would allow children awaiting placement in a low- or moderate-risk residential program to be held in secure detention for longer periods of time, which would slow disposition of cases and increase costs to the local governments paying for detention centers.

The bill also would keep children under the court’s jurisdiction beyond age 18 if there are outstanding court fees. It would require a mandatory fine of up to $50 for a "juvenile crime prevention fund." With most of the children entering the DJJ system in Palm Beach County found to be indigent, the fine likely would go unpaid – as nearly half do now – while requiring probation officers to court officials to keep those files open.

As important, the legislation would diminish DJJ’s role – making it advisory – in determining how restrictive a program a child should enter. Judges would decide instead, without having to state why their conclusion is in the child’s best interest.

The DJJ Blueprint Commission recently concluded that Florida has jailed too many boys and girls instead of focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. HB 273, said the Children’s Campaign, including president Roy Miller, who was a senior adviser to that commission, "effectively moves the juvenile justice system in the opposite direction" of those recommendations.

Legislation enacting the commission’s recommendations has yet to be filed. Meanwhile, HB 273 is moving through House committees, set to expand the state’s wrongheaded "get tough" approach to troubled juveniles. There’s still time for the Legislature, as the blueprint commission urged, to instead "get smart."

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