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On the Right Track: FL Ahead of Federal Juvenile Justice Reform

PHOTO: Florida would receive incentives for locking up fewer juveniles, under a newly updated Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act introduced in Congress. Photo credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
PHOTO: Florida would receive incentives for locking up fewer juveniles, under a newly updated Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act introduced in Congress. Photo credit: Keith Allison, Flickr.com
December 22, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Congress is set to consider updating a decades-old law that guides states on the custody and care of juveniles in the criminal justice system.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was introduced late last week, and one big change would provide incentives to states to lock up fewer children.

Investigative journalist Nell Bernstein says locking up juveniles is expensive and can harm them for the rest of their lives.

"The ones that we incarcerate are twice as likely, when you control for everything under the sun including the delinquent act, to end up as adult prisoners," she stresses.

According to child advocates, Florida is doing better than most states when it comes to reducing juvenile interactions with the court system.

The latest data from the state's Department of Juvenile Justice shows a small decrease in the number of adolescents in the system.

Since 2010, arrests are down 23 percent, and admissions to secure detention centers down by 26 percent.

Catherine Craig-Myers, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Coalition, says Florida began implementing programs to improve its system several years ago and the results are beginning to show.

"What you're seeing now in Florida is a lot of states are looking to what we've done,” she says. “We are looking at the successful things in other states that are done and kind of pulling some of those ideas back to Florida and implementing them statewide."

Bernstein advocates for closing most juvenile detention facilities, saying treating the underlying issues closer to the juveniles' homes is more effective.

Plus, she maintains that the acting out, mouthing off, skipping school or shoplifting that often leads to juveniles being put behind bars is a developmental phase.

"We have to unlock ourselves from this concept that the first-line response when a young person does something we don't want them to do is to remove them from home and community, and place them in a locked institution," she says.

According to the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, nationwide the juvenile arrest rate had dropped 48 percent by 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - FL