Sunday, April 15, 2007
April 15, 2007
The easy out in addressing juvenile justice is to simply declare that "the system is broken," and then charge juveniles as adults. But that's not a long-term answer.
Indeed, the recent push by the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office to charge more juveniles as adults reflects a frustration with Florida's juvenile-justice system, which is in shambles. It's underfunded, overcrowded, poorly managed and hampered by too little emphasis on prevention.
But treating juveniles as adults won't fix much.
For one thing, juveniles charged as adults have a higher rate of getting arrested again once they get out of prison. Almost half do, compared to 35 percent of those treated as juveniles. Is that any wonder? By throwing juveniles into the adult system, the state is breeding career criminals.
The approach also raises serious ethical questions. The age of 18 has been established as the age of majority in Florida, the time when a person is granted adult rights. Before then brains are not fully developed, affecting the ability to make rational decisions. That's why the thrust of the juvenile-justice system is to rehabilitate kids, to get them into programs that can turn them around. Adult prisons instead are geared toward punishment.
The end game, of course, should be to protect society from criminals. But that doesn't mean routinely charging youths as adults just because the juvenile-justice system is a mess.
Fortunately, the early report card on Walter A. McNeil, the new secretary at the Department of Juvenile Justice, is encouraging. He and Orange State Attorney Lawson Lamar will convene a commission this summer to come up with ways to improve the juvenile-justice system. Good for them.
Here are some key points that need to be addressed:Funding: The Legislature allocated only an extra $21 million for juvenile justice last year. That fell far short of the $100 million that people working with the department said was needed to turn things around.
At the same time, there needs to be greater accountability from the department, which contracts 85 percent of its programs to private companies. There are serious questions whether this privatization is working, including concerns that it's wasteful and poorly managed.
Prevention: There needs to be greater attention to after-school programs, family therapy, anger management and counseling so that kids don't commit crimes in the first place.
Sentencing guidelines: The current system is flawed. Juveniles are released after 21 days if the case hasn't been resolved. And they can be told to go home after sentencing if there are no juvenile facilities available. Dumping them back on the streets -- where they are liable to commit more crimes -- is unconscionable.
Revamping the matrix will undoubtedly take years. But it is a challenge that must be met for the good of society.