Juvenile detention bill riles judge, counties as it sails through Congress

Juvenile detention bill riles judge, counties as it sails

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A bill that would let judges lock teenagers in state-run detention centers for a wider variety of offenses is sailing through the legislature, while critics warn that taxpayers would pick up the tab.

The proposal by Rep. Sandra Adams, R-Oviedo, has passed the House unanimously, and a companion bill is moving through the Senate. It would apply to teens living at home, waiting to be sentenced for a crime, who violate a juvenile court judge’s orders by breaking curfew, skipping school or acting disrespectful in court.

Judges cannot now put teens in detention except when the youths are a flight risk, likely to hurt themselves or determined by a state assessment to be a threat to public safety.

But under the bill, even teens who aren’t considered a risk could be locked up for as long as five days for a first offense and 15 days for repeat violations. The proposal also would require judges to lock up juveniles if they leave home for any reason.

The bill "is just begging to be abused," said Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Ronald Alvarez, saying the proposal seems "purely punitive."

Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign Inc., said the proposal also goes against the recommendations of the Blueprint Commission, a statewide task force on juvenile justice reform headed by Florida Atlantic University President Frank Brogan.

It reported this year that Florida is wasting millions of dollars by detaining far more children than other states, including teens who have never committed a violent crime.

Adams said she has addressed some of that by excluding first-time offenders who have committed only a misdemeanor. The Senate version will do the same, she said.

Adams said judges have complained they need sanctions for kids who repeatedly disobey orders.

"We’ve taught our children that we are lying when we say, ‘You should not do this,’ and yet when you do, there are no consequences," she said.

But Miller said the bill will increase the number of children in detention while awaiting sentencing.

Seven detention centers, including the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center in West Palm Beach, exceeded capacity on more than 180 days in the past year. The state charges counties $176.70 per teen each day for juvenile detention.

The Department of Juvenile Justice estimates that 1,333 additional teens a year would be incarcerated under Adams’ proposal, at a cost to the counties of $385,405 to $1.1’million statewide. The Children’s Campaign calls that "ridiculously low," putting the cost at $1.6 million to $4.8 million.

The Florida Association of Counties made defeating the bill one of its top priorities this session, spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said. She said the proposal would allow teens to go back into the system for "almost any violation whatsoever."

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