ST. PETERSBURG — When teenager Nicholas Lindsey was arrested in the murder of Officer David S. Crawford, a statewide network that works with troubled youth made the critical decision to include St. Petersburg in a pilot program designed to address the disproportionate number of minority youth who become entangled in the juvenile justice system.
This Saturday the group will hold a workshop for parents, guardians and middle and high school students to dispense hard facts about gangs, teen court, arrests and detention. Word of the session is being spread by radio, at African-American churches and in community centers.
According to a 2009 Department of Juvenile Justice report, the rate of blacks referred to Florida's juvenile justice system was 2.5 times higher than whites.
Retired juvenile Judge Irene Sullivan describes Saturday's program as a pivotal event.
"I think it's really important, because so many kids, especially of middle school age, and their parents don't realize how easily kids can slip into the juvenile justice system through behavior problems that happen at school, or through hanging out with the wrong kids and being looked at as part of the gang, or staying out very late at night and being thought of as loitering. And in certain areas of town, because they have higher crime and problems that are targeted, kids can get caught up in that targeting,'' said Sullivan, who will speak at the workshop at the Pinellas Job Corps Center.
Organizers of this weekend's five-hour workshop hope it will help break the pattern of what is described in juvenile justice parlance as disproportionate minority contact.
"When you turn on the television, you're tired of seeing the police looking for people who look like you and seeing there are acts of violence, including murder, by people who look like you,'' said Karen Miller, who is African-American and is the associate director for Florida Network of Youth and Family Services, a contractor with DJJ and the organization behind Saturday's program.
"We want to get kids before they get into the juvenile justice system or before they are arrested by law enforcement,'' Miller said.
"We're hoping to impact some choices that children are making by explaining what happens to them when they get involved with the juvenile justice system and what the alternatives are,'' added Pat Gerard, chief operating officer of Family Resources, which has offices in Pinellas Park.
"And I think, for parents, we're hoping to get some information they can use to help steer children in the right direction."
That's a key goal of the workshop, said Barbara Cheives, a consultant hired by the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services to organize the program.
Cheives, praised for her work in Sullivan's book, Raised by the Courts, said it's important that minority parents understand how the juvenile justice system works and learn about diversion and intervention programs.
"The prevention programs that are available to them, our parents don't know about them, so our kids end up in the deep end instead of the front end,'' she said.
"A lot of the parents we're trying to reach are parents who work on Saturday. In some communities, they're just trying to get their basic needs met. They don't have time for things like this."
Teresa Clove, executive director of Thaise Educational and Exposure Tours Inc., which operates out of the Enoch Davis Community Center, is trying to spread word of the event. Her organization, which works primarily with at-risk kids, provides services such as mental health counseling, drug prevention and anger management classes.
"We try to work with the kids to develop them and give them good skills so they don't get into the system,'' she said.
James Myles of Bethel Community Foundation, which offers counseling to children and their families, stuck fliers in Sunday bulletins at Bethel Community Baptist Church, where his nonprofit is located.
Last Saturday, Myles appeared on City Council member Wengay Newton's weekly radio program on WRXB-AM 1590. About 1,800 St. Petersburg juveniles were booked into the Pinellas County detention center in 2010, Newton said this week.
"The last officer was killed by a juvenile,'' he added, referring to 16-year-old Lindsey, accused of killing Crawford on Feb. 21.
"As a village, we have to do a better job.''
Saturday's program will bring out juvenile judges, lawyers, state attorneys, public defenders and St. Petersburg police. They'll talk about difficult topics.
"This is real talk, not scared straight talk, but straight talk,'' said Cheives.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.