Report: Delinquency down in Florida, despite a host of challenges

Arrested teenager with handcuffs

Despite a host of problems facing the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, it has managed to lower youth arrests for nonviolent offenses through the increased use of civil citations, according to a 2017 report on the government agency by the Florida Juvenile Justice Association.

According to the FJJA report, acquired by before its public release, 121,968 children were served by the DJJ in fiscal year 2015-2016, with the majority of children being served in their own communities. The annual review of the department is part of an ongoing overhaul of the system begun five years ago to reform what many experts called the worst system in the nation.

Juvenile arrests have dropped another seven percent during the same period, resulting in an overall six-year decline of 37 percent, the report said, citing the most recent delinquency report released by the DJJ itself.

Much of that decline was achieved through educating law enforcement agencies of the benefits in issuing civil citations in instances of first-time encounters with police for nonviolent offenses. This isn’t a get out of jail freebie, said Catherine Craig-Myers, executive director of the FJJA.

“Florida’s communities are seeing a more troubled child needing intensive services and multiple interventions, as well as ‘crossover youth,’” Craig-Myers told on Monday, referring to minors who have had contact with both child welfare programs and the juvenile justice system. “Florida still leads the nation in prosecuting children charged with nonviolent offenses as adults.”

She said children in the Sunshine State’s DJJ residential treatment program have the most complex set of clinical behavioral needs. Keeping these particularly vulnerable youth from becoming criminalized is a paramount issue.

And without a significant investment to increase the number of qualified, highly trained staff on hand to shepherd these youth their problems, continued success could be problematic. The FJJA director said there’s a need to work more closely with Florida’s school districts in order to better ensure troubled children are identified early on.

Since 2009, two years before the state’s DJJ reform plan went into action, there’s been more than $100 million cut from the agency’s annual budget, negatively impacting the at-risk youth the agency is trying to serve, the report stated.

Clearly, though, the agency is doing more with fewer resources.

According to the report, among the Florida counties showing the most improvement are Miami-Dade with a 12 percent decrease, Broward with an 8 percent decrease, Orange with a 7 percent decrease, with a 6 percent decrease and Hillsborough with a 2 percent decrease.

But without sufficient annual support from the state’s leadership, those numbers could begin to slip. Keeping children out off the so-called “school to pipeline path would be a challenge, Craig-Myers said.

When asked whether the current improvements could be sustained, she was blunt.

“Our report assumes that without continued reinvestment to expand prevention, to maintain quality staff and their retention, and to institute training focused on rehabilitation and treatment, rather than punishment and incarceration, the answer would be no,” she said. “In my opinion the ongoing discourse about how we are doing — in terms of serving foster, or dependent, children — should serve as a ‘cautionary tale’ to inform our efforts to successfully serve pre-delinquent and delinquent children.”

She said fully expanding the system would take time and should be viewed as a long-term goal. Reform needs to go beyond one governor and one administration, with a focus on “saving youth” now and “cost avoidance” to taxpayers later.

Statewide use of civil citations by law enforcement has been good, overall, but can improve.

A second annual report by the Tampa-based Caruthers Institute, called Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Civil Citation Efforts 2016, reveals research about counties that are simply arresting children rather than issuing civil citations. By its account, the institute has determined police actually create recidivism, or re-offenders, who generate more crime.

“There are some people who are committed to tough on crime than smart on crime,” Dewey Caruthers told on Monday when asked about county sheriffs around the state who arrest rather than issue citations. “When you arrest youth for these minor infractions — and we’re talking about misdemeanor stuff here, we’re not talking about grand theft auto and things like that — you’re actually creating more re-offenders, which runs counter to the mission of law enforcement reducing crime.”

Caruthers said there are two segments of youth who get into trouble:  the ones who have done something for the first time and get caught, who represent the overwhelming majority of overall teen or preteen offenders; and then there are the kids who have real issues — their home life may be bad, disorganized, they could be bullied at home or have substance abuse problems, Caruthers said.

Florida legislators passed a measure on March 8 in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Civil Justice eliminating police discretion in response calls involving first-time offending juveniles. SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores was passed unanimously, but was opposed by both the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the Florida Police Chief’s Association. The bill is another part of reforms happening at various levels to stop the criminalization of minors before adulthood.

Statewide during 2015, juvenile civil citations were issued 50 percent of the time by law enforcement for those youth who were eligible. The Caruthers study noted stark differences in how civil citations were applied by law enforcers in rural vs. urban settings, and in a range of socio-economic residential areas.

The FJJA report recommends increasing the use of civil citations by 75 percent statewide, estimating it would “improve life outcomes for nearly 7,000 arrested children as well as save $62 million that could be applied more appropriately. It may be necessary to provide appropriate funding to ensure increase utilization and to address geographic disparity.”

Thirteen counties across the state don’t issue citations at all, including Polk, Bradford, Dixie, Calhoun and Holmes. Among the best counties utilizing the civil citation programs are Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Monroe, Leon and Broward.

Separately, keeping personnel on staff with DJJ has been a major problem. The average employee stays on for less than six months, according to the report.

“Five years into reform both DJJ and its partnering community providers are struggling to retain the professionals needed to ensure quality service delivery,” the report said.

Personnel leave for obvious reasons — higher paying jobs with opportunities for career advancement. This low retention rate is a burden for partnering organizations of the DJJ and the agency itself, which has trouble in service continuity to the at-risk youth they are trying to help.

Former Florida DJJ Sec. Wansley Walters chimed in on the situation facing the state.

“The work to complete the reform is not yet finished and will require a second phase to reinvest resources, strengthen service delivery, and ensure service gaps identified by the department are filled,” she said in a statement. “These efforts will, in turn, slow down the pipeline that exists that feeds our children to the adult prison system.”

Craig-Myers was just as direct in her assessment of the report.

“This report, looking at the success of the DJJ’s reform effort five years later, will inform stakeholders, partners and decision makers on what may be necessary to ensure sustainability of reform,” she said.

“Five years into reform, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is experiencing success.  But there is more work left to be done. Our recommendations are made in the spirit of collaboration and optimism that reform of Florida’s juvenile justice system will continue.”

FJJA had these key recommendations to sustain continued success of the DJJ’s reform plan:

— Stabilize the juvenile justice workforce through reinvestment in staffing.

— Sustain the workforce through a training and certification system.

— Reduce prosecution of nonviolent children as adults. (SB192)

— Ensure availability of deep-end residential services. (now a very small percentage of DJJ youth)

— Ensure availability of community-based behavioral services.

— Identify service gaps and institute programming. (Girls, LGBTQ, Crossover, Trafficked)

— Expand utilization of civil citation. (currently at 50 percent of all eligible youth — SB196, HB205)

— Expand prevention and early intervention. (return $9.1M in Prevention taken last year)

— Ensure availability of services in collaboration with DJJ, DCF and local community agencies. (i.e. crossover youth, behavioral services)

— Ensure education and career education opportunities for DJJ youth. (expanded focus on career education)

Les Neuhaus

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.


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