Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Victim, officials want kids to face consequences

Elaine Aradillas
Sentinel Staff Writer
April 17, 2007

Judy Miller was shocked at the attitude of the teen who was caught burglarizing her Osceola County home.

The 14-year-old boy was laughing, she said, because he knew he wouldn't be held for long.

"Juveniles know the system. They can get away with it over and over again," Miller said. "I am for helping children rehabilitate, but after that, you suffer the consequences."

But Florida sheriffs and an Orange County circuit judge say today's youth are suffering few consequences because of a juvenile-justice system that's broken. The punishments aren't fitting the crimes, they say. Violent offenders, as well as those committing misdemeanors, often receive probation, and state statutes dictate there is little else a judge can do.

Osceola Sheriff Bob Hansell, who said his deputies repeatedly pick up the same offenders, leads a delegation of Florida sheriffs to Tallahassee today to talk with legislators and juvenile-justice officials about the problem.

"Instead of being arrested eight times, we need to take the time to intervene after the first or second time," Hansell said. "If the system works early, then we don't have the problem later that costs us money."

He and the other sheriffs will ask legislators to boost funding for rehabilitative programs into which troubled youth can be steered as an alternative to detention or probation. He also wants the Department of Juvenile Justice to have more resources and judges to have the discretion to confine offenders.

In 2005, Florida arrested more than 120,000 juveniles, including 8,777 in the Orange-Osceola judicial circuit. That was a slight increase from the year before, according to the state's Uniform Crime Index.

Hansell said the numbers continue to grow, and he hopes legislators will address the problem.

In Tallahassee, state Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who has served on the juvenile justice committee since she was elected five years ago, said the DJJ is in a transition period. The new secretary, a former Tallahassee police chief described as pro-prevention who was appointed earlier this year by Gov. Charlie Crist, wants to get settled into his new role before making suggestions, she said.

She said the juvenile-justice system has deteriorated during the past few years because rehabilitation programs have lost funding, but she's optimistic a new philosophy at the helm will turn that around. "Philosophy drives your budget requests," Gibson said.

A spokeswoman for the DJJ said the department has taken steps to change its mission statement.

Samadhi Jones, deputy communications director at DJJ, said a rough draft of the agency's new mission statement indicates a shift toward prevention and intervention as a means to reduce crime.

"We're reframing the mission statement to reflect the desire of the governor to go back to the core values of the juvenile-justice system," she said, "that strengthens families and turns around the lives of troubled youth."

Until mission statements become reality, Orange Circuit Judge Tony Johnson is faced with a system that leaves him little choice, he said.

For three hours one morning last week, Johnson listened to children enter pleas, mostly of not guilty. In turn, he mostly handed out probation -- even to repeat offenders -- because state law requires him to follow sentencing recommendations made by the DJJ.

He said he has given probation for first and second offenses, as well as fifth and sixth. Repeat juvenile offenders know this, he added.

"The community thinks I have the ability to do something about it, and I don't," he said.

He encourages the legislators to put judges back in charge of sentencing, which was taken away from them in the 1990s.

If given the latitude to determine sentencing, he said, he wouldn't start locking up every child but would provide punishment or a program to help divert them from a path toward the adult system.

"It's not about punishing the kids, but guiding the kids firmly," he said.

Because of privacy laws for minors, it's unknown what sentence the 14-year-old Osceola boy received for burglary to a residence and grand theft.

But Miller said the burglary changed the way she lives in her quiet neighborhood, where she used to never lock the front door.

"I'll be lit up. I'll have a dog. I'll have a gate," she said. "I'm doing everything to protect my family. This is a crime-free community, and we're not going to put up with it anymore."

Elaine Aradillas can be reached at earadillas@orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-5940.

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