Friday, April 27, 2007

Juvenile crimes: Cold justice may carry high cost

George Diaz
April 27, 2007

Two 10-year-olds are accused of beating a homeless man in Volusia County. A 14-year-old boy is charged with capital murder in the shooting of an Orlando electrician. A 17-year-old plunges a knife into a student at a school bus loop and kills him.

Recent news about kids and crime is enough to make anyone scream at the chaos and demand justice. It's understandable. Society needs to be protected from criminals, even if their portraits include a mix of yearbook pictures and police mug shots.The frustration echoes all the way to the State Attorney's Office, which is looking to lower the threshold in which juveniles will be tried as adults.

May as well rub some dirt on a wound with arterial bleeding.That approach works if the intent is to breed career criminals. We'll backtrack briefly to make a greater point:The problem starts with the unconscionable failure of parents. I'll assume most of us reading this are fortunate sons or daughters. Now imagine your "prospects" if you were born into the dysfunctional abyss of parents with lengthy criminal records, a crack-addicted mother, and no safety net within the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice system to give you a decent shot at rehabilitation.

Those are some of the particulars in the case of Corey Steplight, the14-year-old who police say shot an electrician to steal fancy rims from the man's Grand Prix.

But unless we wade into dangerous Orwellian territory here and demand birth control by government-imposed methods, the challenges of dealing with a generation of lost children will not go away.

The best coping/preventive mechanism is to save as many of those souls as possible."The research is overwhelming when you compare kids treated as juveniles as opposed to adults," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "Those charged as juveniles have lower recidivism rates. And there is not one study where I find that to be different."

Example: Research compiled by Donna M. Bishop, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, compared the recidivism rates among more than 5,000 teenagers in Florida.Half were treated as juveniles, and the other half were treated as adults for similar crimes. About 19 percent of those treated as juveniles went on to commit other crimes, compared with 31 percent of those tried as adults.The problem with Florida, as one official said, is that "prevention is the redheaded stepchild" of the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Fortunately, that may change. Walter A. McNeil, the department's new secretary, is getting favorable nods from prosecutors and child advocates. He is part of a group that will establish legislative suggestions to improve the system. A philosophical change from the Bush to Crist administration is expected to result in a more preventative agenda.

A national model for juvenile-justice reform can be found in Missouri, which stresses rehabilitation over warehousing. Detention centers include carpeted floors, showers divided by bright curtains, and beds covered with colorful quilts. Troubled teens discuss issues in peer-group meetings called "circles."

You might scoff and argue that cold justice is better than a warm hug. But you also might want to consider that the recidivism rate for juveniles in Missouri is only 8 percent.

As always, money comes into play with extreme makeovers. Florida can choose to pay now or pay later.

But the interest penalty incurred -- check those headlines again -- will include punitive damages.

George Diaz can be reached at 407-420-5533 or

No comments: