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New Hillsborough program puts some juvenile crime cases on fast track

TAMPA

The 13-year-old stood before a judge, ready to confess to his wrongdoing. He had the face of a boy but the criminal record of someone much older. Already on probation for trespassing and burglary, he broke into a home last month and swiped a laptop. The repeat offense didn't surprise anyone in the criminal justice system. They've seen the cycle too many times before. This fall, they are trying something new in hopes of interrupting it, starting with the 13-year-old boy.

The plan is to get him and other juveniles with a penchant for theft processed through the courts more quickly so that they get punished before they have the chance to commit new crimes. The goal is to reduce the number of property crime victims and set juvenile offenders on a more productive path.

"We hopefully turn those children around so they don't end up becoming violent offenders," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor pushed for the three-month pilot project, which started Oct. 6. It's just part of the special focus the agency has put on a small group of young people who commit an inordinate number of crimes.

Castor refers to these kids as "the worst of the worst" and "walking crime waves." They have dozens of arrests on their records. They break into homes and steal cars, sometimes committing multiple burglaries or thefts in a single night.

Two years ago, in an attempt to get the number of thefts under control, Tampa police officers started compiling a list of the young repeat offenders and checking in on them regularly to make sure they were attending school and abiding by their court-ordered curfews.

Officers now make nearly 900 checks a month on 277 juvenile offenders citywide. The endeavor seems to be working. Before the checks began, juveniles in East Tampa committed 334 serious crimes between July and December 2006. Under closer police watch, the number of serious crimes committed in that district dropped to 300 in the last six months of 2007 and 219 in the last six months of 2008.

"When these kids are home at night like they're supposed to be, they aren't out committing crime," Castor said. "We believe that's had a very positive impact on our crime reduction."

But the beefed-up effort didn't really translate to the courts. The dilemma: Juvenile offenders can be held in secure detention for a maximum of 21 days after their arrests. Their cases may take three times as long to get resolved.

Released back on the streets before facing real consequences, some of them get busy stealing again.

The revolving door isn't good for the community, and it can lead to dire results for the offenders. If they accumulate enough arrests, they risk landing in adult court and possibly adult prison before they ever see 18.

That's where the juvenile court experiment comes in. Police and court officials wonder if they can turn some kids around with early intervention.

The initiative is putting a limited number of juvenile offenders on a fast track that gets their cases to trial before they are released from secure detention. That way, if the Department of Juvenile Justice recommends a rehabilitation program, the child can be sent there directly from detention before his or her record gets any worse.

"In some ways, it protects the child from themselves," said Patti Pieri, chief of the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office juvenile division.

To qualify for the pilot project, juveniles must be accused of a felony, arrested by Tampa police and eligible for 21 days of secure detention. They also must have a history of committing property crimes and failing to appear in court or violating probation.

So far, police have recommended only a handful of offenders each week, Detective Ron Phifer said. Then the State Attorney's Office decides whether to charge the offenders in juvenile court.

The project requires close coordination and expedited efforts by police officers and the attorneys involved. Twenty-one days isn't much time to turn around investigative reports, lab results and depositions. Typically, the wheels of justice have barely moved by then.

State agencies don't have extra manpower or money these days, but a prosecutor and public defender have taken on the project in addition to their regular duties. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michelle Sisco, who spent several years hearing juvenile cases before changing divisions, volunteered to oversee the judicial end of the pilot program.

Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt's office will prepare a report on the results. Holt doesn't know if the project is running long enough to determine whether it should be continued and expanded. But for the sake of her office's youngest clients, she was willing to get it a shot.

"It only makes sense to do the intervention as quickly as you can and to try to minimize the ongoing criminal activity," she said. "For us, it's worth it."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

New Hillsborough program puts some juvenile crime cases on fast track 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 8:37pm]
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