Florida needs a strategy for fighting juvenile crime that is more effective and sustainable than shipping teenagers to adult jails and prisons. There is no need to throw away so many young lives or to waste tax dollars to build more prisons. A Miami-Dade County program is a national model for how to keep young offenders from committing new crimes. Hillsborough County should adopt that approach while state lawmakers reassess Florida's juvenile justice laws.
A recent analysis by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins found that Florida sends more children to adult jails and prisons than any other state. State lawmakers enacted a series of get-tough laws in the 1990s to respond to a spike in juvenile crime, making it easier for prosecutors to divert anyone under 18 years old into the adult system.
Florida transfers about half as many juveniles to adult court as it did at the peak in the 1990s. But the 3,592 juveniles sent to the adult system in the 2007-08 fiscal year represent a 45 percent jump since 2003-04. And Jenkins found a disparity in how the caseload was handled. Hillsborough transferred more juvenile cases to adult court than any other county that year. While six Tampa Bay area counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Manatee — sent 1,410 juvenile cases to adult court, seven counties in Florida sent no young people to the adult system. Something appears to be out of whack. Florida is one of just 15 states to give prosecutors the authority to "direct file" juvenile cases to adult court, and that discretion could be easily abused by elected prosecutors.
Florida law requires that juveniles be charged in adult court for some violent offenses, such as murder. And adult court may be appropriate for some young repeat offenders. But the state needs to reassess whether the discretion to charge is being applied fairly and uniformly, and whether it has helped or hurt in controlling juvenile recidivism.
More communities also need to adopt the Miami-Dade model. For 10 years, officials there have routed juveniles to the behavioral, substance-abuse and other support services they need. Miami-Dade has cut its juvenile arrest rate by half, seen an 80 percent reduction in repeat offenders and saved some $20 million a year in costs to police, probation officers and the courts.
Pinellas adopted the model in April. Officials say 500 juveniles have avoided a criminal record and have received the services they need to turn away from crime. Hillsborough, which is looking into the program, should adopt it, too. About 25 percent more juveniles are arrested in Hillsborough than in Miami-Dade, even though Miami-Dade has twice the population. State Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chairman of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, held a workshop recently on ways to cut court costs. He should look to Miami, where they have been doing it for years.