Tampa forum focuses on reforming Florida's juvenile justice system

Published Dec. 12, 2017

TAMPA — Changing the way Florida treats juvenile offenders was the focus of Monday night's forum on criminal justice reform.

"We send more children to adult prison than any other state," said Raymer Maguire IV, manager of the ACLU's Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform, which sponsored the event.

Many punishments that inmates receive, Maguire said, "often don't fit the crime."

More than 50 activists, lawyers, students and residents attended the forum at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex.

The conversation started with the reforms proposed for the 2018 Florida legislative session, which starts Jan. 9. Then it turned to the effects of the criminal justice system on juveniles younger than 18.

"An individual's circumstances should be a key determinant in the consequences, and rehabilitation should be the core focus," said activist Melissa Miller, who became a felon at the age of 17 and recently had her rights restored.

Miller was just one of thousands of juveniles across Florida charged as adults before they turn 18. She said that Florida is in need of a system that "values second chances."

The forum offered these statistics: Since 2009, more than 14,000 children, some as young as 10, have been prosecuted as adults in Florida. From 2015 to 2016, it was more than 1,200.

Maguire said that in 2016, out of about 22,000 offenses that could have ended in arrest, authorities instead handed out about 11,000 civil citations, an alternative sanction for first-offense misdemeanors.

Handing out civil citations is an example of what the Florida Legislature can do to alleviate the problem. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he is "very optimistic" about the bills proposed for the 2018 session. He is one of two Democrats on the Florida Senate's criminal justice committee.

"It's no longer just a Democratic issue," he said. "It's a great nonpartisan issue this year."

Rouson said the bills being crafted include ideas such as relaxing mandatory minimum drug sentences; increasing the minimum threshold for an automatic felony from $300 worth of property or damage to more than $1000; and more civil citation and diversion programs. Other proposed bills would ban indicting children younger than 14 as an adult; allowing teens already in the adult system to request a transfer to juvenile court; and requiring judges to justify recommending adult punishments for children.

Right on Crime, a conservative advocacy group, released results from an October survey: 60 percent of Floridians said rehabilitation should be the focus of the criminal justice system over punishment. The survey was of 800 registered voters.

Former Tampa police Officer Orlando Gudes said sending kids into the juvenile criminal justice system without guidance or training will most likely "go back to their old ways."

"You have young people that are going into the system that are already lost and then they're just sitting there still lost, and you let them go, and they come back lost," Gudes said. "What have they learned? Who's mentored them to do anything? What skills do they have to do anything?"