Black kids can get caught up in a juvenile justice system that often fails; but some programs work

By: - July 7, 2021 7:00 am

Credit: Richard Theis/EyeEm/Getty

Black juveniles in Florida are arrested at higher rates compared to all other ethnic groups and struggle to get into diversion programs aimed to prevent kids from entering the criminal justice system, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

The situation is problematic in part because legislation to expand the pool of youth offenders eligible for various prevention programs was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week, because of concerns about allowing felony cases in the diversion programs.

Currently, the programs for youths involve misdemeanor cases.

The Juvenile Justice department focuses on youth crime at the earliest stages and provides alternatives so youths don’t get arrested. The diversion programs can save millions of dollars, according to the state DJJ.

Overall, the state’s Black population is 16.9 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Among juvenile offenders, Black kids are disproportionately affected by the justice system, said Carrie Boyd, policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund.

“They are placed in a system that puts them on a path for failure. And they get caught up in it. And it’s really difficult to get out from under the constraints of the justice system,” Boyd said in a phone interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“This is a growing problem. It is in desperate need of a remedy,” she said.

According to data from the states’ DJJ, a total of 45,423 juveniles were arrested in Florida in 2019-20. Data on the juvenile population show 1.9 million Florida residents between the ages of 10 and 17 in that same year.

But most of those arrests involved Black youth, with 50.9 percent or 23,131 Black kids arrested, compared to 32.4 percent for white youth. And 16.2 percent of youth arrests were among Hispanics.

In addition, the total number of youth offenders statewide who served in a diversion program for 2019-20 was 8,800 but only 3,547 were Black, compared to 3,706 white youth offenders. That means only 40.3 percent of Black offenders who were eligible served in a program, according to data from the state’s juvenile justice department.

The bill that was vetoed by DeSantis would have extended opportunities for minors who complete a diversion program to have a nonjudicial arrest record expunged for not only misdemeanors, but also for felony offenses.

Currently, Florida law allows juveniles to apply for expungement for only misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct, alcohol offenses, trespassing and vandalism, and misdemeanor sex offenses, according to data from DJJ.

According to the state’s juvenile justice department, nonjudicial arrests means an “alternative to judicial handling” in which the juvenile will not have a criminal record upon successful completion of a diversion program.

Diversion programs effective in reducing recidivism

Those programs are targeted at reducing recidivism and offer juveniles a variety of resources including mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, anger management and other services.

Several types of diversion programs for juvenile offenders exist, including civil citation, pre- and post-arrest programs, as well as “neighborhood restorative justice programs,” according to a legislative analysis.

Christian Minor, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, told the Phoenix that diversion programs could help more kids in Florida gain employment “at a time where employers have a difficult time getting staff and people to work.”

“When you look at this bill that DeSantis vetoed from one perspective, it’s not only great for second chances, but it’s huge for workforce development, because we don’t want these kids being held back through an arrest in which we told them they’re afforded a second chance,” Minor said in a phone interview.

“But this arrest is still on their record, barring them from getting employment, barring them from serving in the military, barring them from going to college,” Minor added.

Florida police chiefs share concerns over diversion program expansion

Meanwhile, advocates for juvenile justice reform were shocked by DeSantis’ veto, because the bill received bipartisan support during the 2021 legislative session.

DeSantis expressed concerns in his veto letter for SB 274 about “the unfettered ability to expunge serious felonies, including sexual battery, from a juvenile’s record may have negative impacts on public safety.”

“For this reason, I withhold my approval of SB 274 and do hereby veto the same,” DeSantis wrote.

The Florida Police Chiefs Association was in support of DeSantis’ decision and expressed those same concerns related to serious offenses involving minors such as sexual battery, and other violent crimes.

Jennifer Cook Pritt, executive director of the FPCA, said in an email Thursday to the Florida Phoenix:

“FPCA supports a reasonable policy of record expungement for juveniles. During the legislative session, FPCA made clear that juveniles who commit forcible felonies — crimes like sexual battery, arson, aggravated assault or battery, or other felonies that involve the use or threat of violence — should not qualify for expungement. We applaud Governor DeSantis for recognizing FPCA’s position and vetoing SB 274, and we look forward to working with the bill sponsors in 2022 to pass a better bill.”

State Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican, was a cosponsor. So was was state Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican and chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. According to legislative records, not a single House member or senator voted against the bill.

State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat representing part of Broward County who co-sponsored the measure, was taken aback by DeSantis’ veto decision.

“Given its unanimous passage and bipartisan nature of the bill, I was shocked by the governor’s decision to veto SB 274,” Farmer said in an email last week to the Florida Phoenix. “I co-sponsored SB 274 because I believe in second chances, particularly for our children.”

The bill that was vetoed stipulated that decisions to grant diversion would have been “at the discretion of either the law enforcement officer that confronted the juvenile at the time of the incident” or the state attorney assigned to the case, according to a legislative analysis.

The DJJ has data showing that some officers declined to allow a juvenile in an alternative program, for reasons such as resisting arrest or concerns about gang affiliations.

Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign, said in a written statement:

“The veto of SB 274 is a shocking blow to justice for Florida’s children. Juvenile offenses deemed by the courts and state attorneys to not be threats to public safety when youth and families accept shared responsibility will continue to be roadblocks to productive futures for thousands of children.”

Addressing crime rates among Black youth

The bill also drew support from members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, including state Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat representing part of Hillsborough County who expressed shock at the veto.

The governor had an opportunity, through the legislation, to address the challenges Blacks face when entering the criminal justice system at a young age, Driskell said in a phone interview.

“It came as a surprise to me. It wasn’t carried by Black Caucus members, but it was supported by them,” Driskell said. “So it is a great disappointment that it didn’t pass. And you think about the impact it [high crime rate] has on our Black boys, especially. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

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Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.