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Carlton: Keeping kids out of jail blues

Published Jul. 23, 2015

The children are brought into court in detention uniforms, blue shirts and khakis, distinguishing them from grownup inmates in baggy bright orange filling other courtrooms not far away.

Most are teenagers, though they have been as young as 8, as young as 6. Some come transported in chains and then unshackled for court. And some days, this must feel like the most hopeless place in the Hillsborough County Courthouse.

From the bench, juvenile delinquency judges listen to stories of how these young inmates got in trouble, sometimes very serious trouble. But sometimes, at school, it's a fight over a long-simmering dispute, a turf war, a shove, an act of disrespect real or imagined. Sometimes it's a kid lashing out at a teacher.

Julianne Holt is the county's longtime public defender, boss of 120 lawyers representing the poor in a system that has taken in 8,076 children 17 and under since 2014. She will tell you she sees two things in these kids: "They don't know how to deal with conflicts, and they don't know how to deal with their emotions."

In lockstep with the school system, she wants to do something here.

Holt was at a School Board student discipline workshop this week talking up some intriguing ideas: Her attorneys would regularly come to schools to meet with kids about staying out of the system. (And maybe about how real it is, she told me later, with photographs to take them inside those stark juvenile facilities.) Her office could arrange for advocates for students facing potential criminal charges. They could work on conflict resolution. And they could work with teachers and administrators on a shared goal of keeping kids out of jail.

"I don't think really the public as a whole … understands the ramifications to a child who gets put into the justice system, even just for a misdemeanor," Holt says. Seasoned and cynical veterans of such courtrooms will tell you that for some, juvenile court is the first stop on the prison pipeline.

Given that public defenders' offices are traditionally overburdened, underfunded, and so, you would think, not inclined to take on more, maybe this is surprising.

But besides the greater good are the practical aspects.

The physical fights, the threats "are the areas where we could probably cut our caseload 40, 50 percent," Holt says of her by-the-way taxpayer-funded office. "So if we can divert them, or if we can save them from becoming another statistic, I think it's a win-win."

Of course, it will take one very big buy-in from teachers and administrators, from prosecutors and police.

It will take lawyers in her office — 10 or 15 of them — working the work into their schedules.

Holt says the possibilities in this have energized her, have made her feel like when she was first elected to this post 23 years ago. Still, she thought, maybe her lawyers would think:

Great. Another thing we get to take on.

After stories about all this hit the paper this week, Holt started getting emails from her employees. One came just as we were talking.

This is awesome, it said, please count me in — apparently a believer in trying to keep students from graduating to baggy bright orange.

Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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