Sunday, April 5, 2009

At an alarming rate, youths landing in Lee County criminal system

At 17, Bill Simmons of Fort Myers should probably be dead.

He survived complications at birth, being struck by a semitrailer at age 7, pneumonia at 13 and an attack with knives and baseball bats by his father’s drug customers at 15.

If you saw his rap sheet before hearing his story, though, you wouldn’t call him a victim.

Since he was 9, he’s been charged with dozens of crimes, including burglary, arson, theft, battery and drug sales. He’s spent months at a time in halfway houses and juvenile detention facilities.

Now, he faces possible adult charges and prison time.

“I know I’m out of chances,” Simmons said. “But I’m still hoping for one more. I believe there’s a reason I’m still alive.”

Simmons’ case is extreme, but the number of juveniles entering the criminal justice system has increased almost 30 percent over the last four years, mirroring population growth. According to the Juvenile Assessment Center, the teen booking facility in Fort Myers, crimes are becoming more violent, and the number of teens arrested for gun offenses has shot up more than 50 percent from 2004 to 2008. Among girls, there was a 48 percent rise.

Local agencies have banded together to address the issues, but statewide budget cuts have meant services for kids have either shrunk or stayed stagnant.

Across Lee County and among the 55,689 youths ages 10 to 17 here now, the impact has been felt:

• In neighborhoods, where violent crimes committed by teens are up nearly 22 percent in the last four years;

• In schools, from which nearly 700 were arrested;

• In holding facilities, where the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Southwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Myers is reported to be the second-most crowded in the state, behind Escambia County on the Panhandle;

• And in homes, where about 3,000 families are navigating the system at any given time.

Local high-profile juvenile crime cases in recent years have spotlighted the issue. They include the Cape Coral Cash Feenz murders in 2006, the 17 vandals in Estero who caused $200,000 damage to a home in 2008 and the February arrest of two North Fort Myers boys, 9 and 10, who plotted to blow up their school.

Betty Roberts, 62, is Simmons’ grandmother. A school bus driver who raised him and other grandchildren from infancy, she said she was “probably too lenient” with him.
“But he’s the kind of kid you just want to wrap your arms around and love him because he’s just been through so much,” Roberts said.

In the courtroom

The crack of the gavel from circuit Judge Bruce Kyle elicits a kind of study hall hush.
One girl drapes her arm across her boyfriend’s shoulder as she smacks her gum. A boy sits next to his mother, his head resting on a splayed hand, staring at an untied shoe.

On the fifth floor of the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Fort Myers, it’s standing room only, and many spill out into the hallway. It is arraignment day in juvenile court, and the charges against the children range from misdemeanor theft and trespassing to robbery with a firearm and selling crack cocaine.

JoAnna Garcia, 16, shuffles to the front of the courtroom to answer to a charge of petty theft, which she denies. Kyle’s gaze falls to her fluffy pink slippers.

“Next time, wear shoes,” he orders before giving her another court date.

“In the adult system, it’s much more about punishment,” Kyle said. “In the youth system, it’s more about rehabilitation. But you are going to have some kids who are self-starters, who can see the bigger picture, and have a bigger support group. Those are the ones who are going to do well.”

In 2008, the majority of juvenile crimes were thefts, burglaries and drug offenses. Most of those were misdemeanors, according to the assessment center. However, the number of felony charges filed rose 6 percent within the last year: from 1,993 in 2007 to 2,112 in 2008.

Kathy Smith, the circuit’s public defender, said over the last decade, as the number and seriousness of juvenile crimes have climbed, attitudes appear to have shifted.
“It has transformed into a more formalized system,” Smith said. “It is much more adversarial in nature, and the outcome of cases is much more similar to a punishment than to rehabilitation.”

Kyle hears an average of 100 cases each day, and relies on recommendations from the Department of Juvenile Justice, along with its partners, when deciding what action to take.

First-time offenders are most commonly placed on some form of probation or sent to a diversion program, such as teen court or a neighborhood accountability board, where community volunteers hand down a sentence, giving juveniles the chance to avoid a record.

As an alternative to arrest for first-time offenders of minor crimes, there’s also the option of a voluntary civil citation; 92 percent of teens in that program do not re-offend. Usually, those given civil citations are made to do community service. Bill Naylor, director of the assessment center that started the program, said the effort works because it’s combined with counseling and other services, and reaches offenders when they’re young.

In the courts, the process from arrest to sentencing is supposed to take three weeks, tops. With caseloads up, it often drags out several months. According to the Lee Clerk of Courts Juvenile Division, the number of delinquency cases filed increased 6 percent in the last four years, with 3,555 cases filed in 2008.

Parents such as Francesca Schroll of Fort Myers complain of the workdays they must miss to attend court dates. Her son, J.C. Schroll, 17, violated the 6 p.m. curfew of the probation he received after he was caught breaking into cars.

“It’s like kangaroo court,” she said. “They just keep bouncing you around from one court date to the next, and it’s like, how many more days can I take off? I’m not excusing what he did, and he needs to pay the consequences, but there’s got to be a better way to deal with this.”

The philosophies

On the first floor of the Justice Center, inside a drawer in circuit Judge Joseph Fuller’s office, is a newspaper clipping.

The headline blares “Juvenile Crime Worse” than it’s ever been, and quotes Judge Lynn Gerald as saying a lack of proper parental guidance is to blame.

The story was published Dec. 10, 1947, in The News-Press.

“Every generation is going to think, ‘This is as bad as it’s ever been,’” said Fuller, a former juvenile justice judge. “But the whole theory has to remain: Kids will make mistakes, and you’re there to get them straightened out.”

Fuller was the juvenile judge just before Kyle, who is the seventh to preside in the 20th Circuit in the last eight years.

Circuit Judge James Seals presided over juvenile delinquency cases on and off for four years before focusing on child welfare cases. He said part of the caseload increase can be attributed to a push among victims to prosecute first-time offenders — 83 percent of whom don’t commit crimes again.

“In my childhood, if I was playing ball and broke the neighbor’s window, my dad would grab me by the scruff of the neck, drag me over there, make me apologize and take money out of my allowance until the window was paid for,” Seals said. “Nowadays, the child breaks the neighbor’s window, the neighbor wants the child arrested and prosecuted for criminal mischief. In other words, they are forfeiting their rights to resolve these problems at the lowest levels.”

That has been the result of a breakdown in families and communities, he said.

“Just look at the way neighborhoods are constructed,” he said. “In older neighborhoods, you’ll notice the focus of the homes is on the front yard and the street. Today, homes have the focus on the backyard, and even those are fenced in. We live in these separated little enclaves, and there is less a sense of community, which has contributed to the fact that juvenile crime is handled by the courts and strangers rather than within their own communities.”

Seals and Fuller support the model of restorative justice, where the focus for nonviolent offenses is less on punishing the child and more on restoring the victim, whether through payment, service or a combination of both.

At least one local diversion program is practicing the model, and reports a 96 percent success rate. Nora Donato-Hitchcock, coordinator for the Neighborhood Accountability Board program, said the boards are composed of local volunteers, who meet with both juvenile and victim to discuss and carry out a plan of restoration.

For a teen who vandalized property, it could mean cleaning the yard of a foreclosed home. For a child caught stealing or breaking into houses, it could mean working to pay back the victim.

Juveniles are referred to the boards as a court diversion, and will be sent back to court if recommendations aren’t followed. If they complete the program, their record remains clean.

“It’s about having them acknowledge the fact that they did wrong,” Donato-Hitchcock said. “Some of the kids don’t realize how a crime can affect people.”

Donato-Hitchcock knows because she is still affected by an incident 17 years ago, when her car was broken into. The person never was caught.

“To this day, I always have to triple-check that all my doors are locked because I’ve lost that sense of security,” she said. “These kids need to understand that.”


J.C. Schroll was 15 when he and friends burglarized a string of cars in a Fort Myers neighborhood about two years ago.

He was caught, placed on probation and given a 6 p.m. curfew, which he violated last month.

“It was all really stupid,” Schroll said. “I just wasn’t really thinking of the consequences. I did have plans to go to the Marine Corps, but now with my record, I don’t think that’s going to be possible.”

While juvenile records can be sealed or expunged, a checkered past can haunt a youth when trying to get a job, join the military or gain admission to college.

Staff Sgt. Robert Fisher, spokesman for the Marine Corps recruiting station in Fort Lauderdale, said applicants are expected to disclose their entire criminal history, including juvenile run-ins.

“We’ll look at how old they were at the time, what the offense was, how long ago it was and what has been their behavior since. One bad decision won’t automatically bar you, but we do expect you to explain yourself,” Fisher said.

A juvenile record also could potentially affect chances for scholarships or college admissions. Hege Ferguson, associate director of admissions at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said a juvenile record won’t necessarily keep a student from acceptance, but the university asks about criminal history. Prospective students are expected to answer honestly, and a board will review the application if there is a criminal past.

“We feel we have a responsibility to our current and incoming students to have all that information,” she said.

For 17-year-old Bill Simmons, college isn’t an option right now. As he waits on house arrest to hear whether he may be prosecuted for adult charges of burglary, he’s also contending with the possibility of being a father. His 16-year-old girlfriend believes she is pregnant.

His mother died several years ago, and his father is in and out of prison, having entered his life again only in the past two years, he said.

“I guess sometimes I get angry about all that,” Simmons said. “But my grandma is really like the best mom or dad you could have. I know she does the best she can.”
Looking back at his crimes, Simmons said some were out of necessity, such as when he broke into a house with his cousin and stole food. Others, like the battery charge against another cousin, were a result of his temper, which he said he’s working hard to control.

“All I can do is hope for the best,” Simmons said. “I know I can’t mess up again. I want to be a good father, if I am going to be, and I don’t want to make my grandma cry anymore.”

Additional Facts
Crimes involving teens in Lee County are increasing in both number and level of violence. Since 2004, the number of Lee arrested teens increased 29 percent, and those arrested for gun offenses shot up more than 50 percent. Among girls, there was a 48 percent rise. While local agencies have banded together to address the issues, statewide budget cuts have meant services for kids have either shrunk or stayed stagnant. For the last five months, The News-Press staff writer Rachel Myers and photographer Andrew West have been been learning the process and speaking with individuals involved in the juvenile justice system, including officials, parents, judges and children. The News-Press is presenting a series of stories, photographs and videos that breakdown the biggest issues, and show how you can get involved. Also Monday, participate in a live chat on with Southwest Regional Juvenile Detention Center superintendent Vincent Vurro from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

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