There's a real teen crime problem in Florida, and our state politicians are making it worse. By ignoring the vital needs of our children and families, they have continued to support a broken system that breeds crime, abuse, violence and mass teenage incarceration. As a result, our streets and neighborhoods have become more dangerous and our schools are no longer safe.
Statistics show that nearly one in 10 students will face physical violence or threats at school, and that teachers are subject to threats and violence as well. According to one study in 2003-2004, more than 10 percent of Florida teachers were threatened by students during that school year, and one in 20 were victims of violence. Our state is second in the nation in the percentage of teachers who report being threatened by students.
Getting tough and locking up the offenders is easy enough, and it sounds good in election year speeches. The problem is it doesn't work. Taxpayers wind up paying more for prisons on the back end, when we could have invested a fraction of the resources on the front end to turn young, troubled lives around.
Investing in kids early to keep them on the right path is smart spending. Unfortunately, Florida has been moving in the opposite direction by cutting investments. Without a change, Florida will continue down this path, where teens who slip into crime are locked up instead of getting help to overcome their educational and economic challenges. In Florida today, nearly 10 percent of all teens are not attending school or working. That is a recipe for even more crime.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard two cases from Florida involving sentencing minors to prison with no chance of parole. Florida leads the nation in prosecuting children as adults.
Why? Florida law makes it easy to pull children out of the juvenile justice system and funnel them into an adult court system that isn't equipped to rehabilitate them. What if we could treat thousands of these teens in community treatment programs at a fraction of the cost for prison?
A study in Michigan tracked children for 27 years to see how those who attended a preschool program compared with those who did not. By age 27, the children who did not attend were five times more likely to have been arrested for drug felonies and twice as likely to have been arrested for violent crimes. Another study in Chicago found that kids who did not get early care and education were 70 percent more likely to have been arrested by age 18 than those who did.
We can reduce juvenile crime in Florida by improving our pre-K programs and providing quality early learning programs and day care for working families.
But that's a tough sell to a Legislature only interested in cutting.
We must demand better leadership in Florida — we must look for people who can see beyond shortsighted budget cuts and consider the impact of their decisions a generation from now. Florida's people must reject the easy rhetoric of election year politics and look at what has really been happening to the children of Florida over the past decade.
We can no longer allow the needs of families, and especially children, to be ignored. The price of locking up our young people rather than graduating them is far too high.
Lawton "Bud" Chiles is president of the Lawton Chiles Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to make Florida a state in which children thrive. For more information, go to www.WorstToFirst.org.