Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Lock them up, state says about juvenile crooks

Sarah Lundy

Sentinel Staff Writer

August 7, 2007

State officials want to lock up more Central Florida juvenile delinquents instead of sending them home where they can commit more crimes.

To do this, the Department of Juvenile Justice is working to open a center in Orlando for teens who now go home after being sentenced for crimes to wait for space in one of Florida's residential facilities.

This and other ideas are on a list of 25 things juvenile-justice leaders want to do for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties. It comes at a time when law-enforcement officials, judges and community residents say juvenile crime in Central Florida is becoming more violent.

On Sunday night, a 16-year-old was arrested after police say he used a shotgun to rob an Ocoee Kangaroo Express with two other teenagers and a 33-year-old.

Last week, a 15-year-old was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he pleaded no contest to carjacking.

And next week, a trial begins for a 14-year-old charged with attempted murder in the shooting of a store clerk who was paralyzed as a result of the attack.

In 2005-06, nearly 15,000 kids were arrested for various crimes in Orange and Osceola counties. This is up from nearly 14,000 the year before, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

"It's out of hand," Circuit Judge Tony Johnson said. "We need to fix this."

Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil traveled to Orlando in July with some of his management team to learn more about Central Florida's juvenile-justice problems. The list of proposed action emerged from these meetings.

Other actions include training a coordinator to work with law enforcement anti-gang teams, creating a program to teach parents about the juvenile-justice system and transferring three probation officers from South Florida to Orange and Osceola counties.

"That is a very positive sign and indicates the secretary has a good understanding of the problems," said Johnson, who has criticized the juvenile-justice system in the past for failing to hold teenagers accountable.

Randy Means, a spokesman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office, agreed that juvenile-justice officials are trying. However, he added that it's going to take more money and more staff to improve the state's system.

This will be a challenge in the state's financial environment, where the Department of Juvenile Justice was asked to find ways to slash $62 million from its $709 million budget.

"A lot of it will depend on the courage of our legislators and governor's staff," Means said.

Richard Davison, deputy secretary of the juvenile-justice agency, said he thinks the items on the list are achievable. He plans to give a report in six months. He admits the most difficult goal is the center for juvenile delinquents waiting to go to a state facility. No timeline for that project exists, he said.

Juvenile-justice officials haven't met with any other community the same way, but they are holding public hearings throughout the state as part of the Blueprint Commission, which aims to reform the department.

A hearing will take place in Orlando on Oct. 4-5.

The ideas on the list, if implemented, "will help make the community a little bit safer," Davison said.

Sarah Lundy can be reached at slundy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-6218.

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