Unlike task force reports that gather dust, a report on juvenile justice has the support of State Attorney Melissa Nelson.
The Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee brought together 23 informed and influential community members who met for over a year.
The goal was to find ways to improve programs that divert juveniles out of the criminal justice system and toward paths of good citizenship.
The report found “multiple opportunities to significantly improve Northeast Florida’s juvenile justice system.”
The idea is to intervene quickly and efficiently before juveniles are on the path to prison.
This is best done by transferring diversion programming from the State Attorney’s Office to the Kids Hope Alliance; the State Attorney’s Office would be limited to the front end (for referral) — and the back end (when diversion doesn’t work).
The task force recommended a case management structure that tailors diversion programs to the needs of the juvenile.
It also recommended eliminating the initial judicial hearing for juveniles in diversion programs — as well as “scared straight” tours of jails.
These are recommendations that embrace the reality that juveniles are not mini-adults; they are people whose brains have not fully developed the ability to resist peer pressure or consider the long-term consequences of emotionally charged actions.
The vast majority of adolescents will grow out of delinquent behavior if given the chance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean ignoring crimes; it means that the intervention should fit the individual. Sometimes just taking a tough approach merely leads to more offenses.
Many of the juveniles caught in the justice system have no caring adults to provide guidance and are victims of trauma themselves; in addition locking them up rarely gives them access to treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues.
With their isolated settings, harsh surroundings, constant din and relentless threats of violence, juvenile prisons often produce more trauma and rage.
And youth residential facilities, as illustrated by a Miami Herald investigation, are prone to instances of abuse. As a result nearly 50 youth correctional leaders have called for an end to the youth prison model.
A report from Harvard University and the National Institute of Justice acknowledges that some young people still need to be confined, but adds that “even for them, harsh, punitive, inhumane and developmentally inappropriate settings are not the right place; certainly not if the goal is ... positive youth development and rehabilitation.”
This rehabilitative model would include staffing the Juvenile Assessment Center with social service providers rather than probation officers.
Also recommended is a pilot program for a Young Adult Court, modeled on Teen Court.
A major increase in the use of civil citations has not only removed many juveniles from the justice system, it has been effective in preventing re-offenses; just 4 percent of those with civil citations have re-offended despite the rapid increase in numbers.
Let's make it clear: not every juvenile can receive a civil citation. Among the conditions that must be in place include these:
• The juvenile must be under the age of 18.
• There must be two or fewer prior citations.
• There must be no pending citation, warrant or custody order.
• They must not be identified as a gang member.
A juvenile who receives a civil citation is typically referred to Teen Court or a Neighborhood Accountability Board; the process is both quicker and more thorough in most cases than going through the court system.
The juvenile also is offered services.
The juvenile must accept responsibility and make reparations through therapy, written assignments and community service; indeed many crime victims and law enforcement officers often receive letters of apology from the juveniles.
Sooner or later funding will have to be found to carry out these strategies — resources like grants are only temporary sources of support.
A report that can make a difference
Nelson deserves praise for calling together this task force, for already taking a leading role in pursuing civil citations and for a commitment to following through on effective ways to stop juvenile delinquent behavior.
And Mayor Lenny Curry’s budget put the juvenile justice diversion program in the Kids Hope Alliance, just as the task force recommended.
Clearly this is a task force report that is poised to make a difference.