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Group will study juvenile justice reforms in Hillsborough

TAMPA — A new Hillsborough County task force will seek to develop alternatives to locking up juvenile offenders who commit minor offenses.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner won approval Wednesday for creating the task force, something he has been working on for more than a year, on a 5-1 vote.

Commissioner Jim Norman voted against the proposal and Al Higginbotham was out of the room during the vote.

Beckner said he has two main objectives for the task force.

The first priority is finding better ways of dealing with 70 percent or so of children arrested for doing what he calls "something stupid."

His aim, he said, is to figure out what is causing those children to misbehave and address it so they don't develop into problem citizens.

He said the issue is of particular concern in the black community, whose children make up about half of those arrested.

Second, Beckner said he hopes to save the county money by keeping children out of the system.

"We will make absolutely certain that there is no compromise to public safety," said Beckner, who assembled law enforcement officials to bless his effort.

The task force initially will include 17 people, mostly from law enforcement, the courts or local government, as well as Beckner.

But it also will have representatives of three groups that focus on issues of importance to the black community, including the NAACP, in recognition of disproportionate representation of black children in the criminal justice system.

The makeup could change as the task force's work progresses, and could soon include someone representing Hispanic interests.

Beckner also said several satellite advisory panels will be formed to contribute to discussions and that the task force will aggressively seek public input.

While he has said he has no preconceptions, he has studied Miami-Dade, which has a model diversion program.

Records show that the state Department of Juvenile Justice, which oversees youth detention centers, charges counties about $280 a day for each offender — about $8.4 million total last year in Hillsborough. Beckner said he is open to exploring whether Hillsborough could do it for less.

His task force proposal has run into opposition from some community activists, who say it tilts too heavily toward people who represent the criminal justice system.

Norman said he voted against the proposal because other commissioners did not get to recommend appointees.

Beckner said the task force will seek input from anyone, including former youth offenders.

He said he avoided directly including people who run programs for troubled children, fearing they might be seeking an inside track on future contracts.

"I wanted to keep … financial interests and self interests away from the task force," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Group will study juvenile justice reforms in Hillsborough 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 11:59pm]

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