Cookies ’n Cream
On an overcast afternoon in mid-January, a group of students sat in a circle in the Booker T. Washington cafeteria. Two Pensacola Police officers joined them.
The students and officers were participating in a forum entitled “How Can We Be Friends?” to “start the dialogue” and “break down some barriers.”
“This is a safe place,” assured Eugene Morris, with the DJJ.
The forum was meant to facilitate open dialogue between youth and law enforcement. Or, as an officer in the back of the cafeteria explained, to reach out to kids before they encountered the system.
“Trying to head ‘em off before they get to us,” the officer said. “That’s what we want to do, because the next step after that is the big house, it’s not cookies ’n cream.”
The students were joined by a group of boys wearing matching t-shirts. These kids are already in the system.
The group was asked, “Why were you put on this Earth?”
One of the policemen was destined to work in public relations. A student said she wanted to join the Navy and later open her own child-care center.
“I want to be a successful young man,” said one of the boys in the matching t-shirt, rattling something off about having a wife and kids and “a white picket fence.”
His prospects are statistically diminished from the onset. With his foot already in the system, each proceeding step of life—school, job, etc.—will be an uphill trek.
“We want to keep them out of the judicial system when we can,” Sgt. Chris Huffman, one of the police officers sitting in the circle, said the next day.
That can be difficult. Zero-tolerance policies lock officials into arrests and civil citation programs, which are designed to allow first-time misdemeanor offenders to avoid the judicial system, have a patchy history in Escambia.
Huffman, a longtime school resource officer, said that arresting juveniles has become more common through the years.
“You know, a couple of kids that are involved in a fight, years ago that probably would be handled by the dean’s office,” he said, “but they probably weren’t arrested.”
Once in the system, the journey begins. Regardless of the direction one’s life takes, a youthful arrest lingers hauntingly.
“The military cuts back, they’re more and more picky,” Paul Wallis, a chief probation officer with DJJ would later explain. “You’ve got employers that look at criminal history, arrest histories. You’ve got landlords that look at that. You can no longer work in certain professions.”
The state juvenile justice department is currently floating a plan to minimize juvenile involvement with the judicial system. It’s an attempt to keep low-risk kids out of a high-risk system.
Stepping outside the high school cafeteria, Morris described a philosophical shift for Florida’s juvenile justice system. He said some arrests may be “a cry for attention.”
“Which doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be locked up in one of our deeper end systems,” he said. “We need to work more on the front end.”
His mellow baritone bouncing around the atrium, Morris began to sound like a holistic healer playing free jazz.
“There’s always reasons for certain behaviors, what we have not always done is ask questions,” he crooned. “If we can figure a better way and smarter way of dealing with issues that are effecting young people, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Painting by Numbers
A few miles across town, members of the Escambia County Youth Justice Coalition gathered on the campus of Pensacola State College. The group came to vent on a warm, rainy night.
“I’d like to tell you some numbers,” began Rev. Rick Branch. “Numbers that paint a dire picture for Escambia’s youth.”
The youth justice coalition unloaded their concerns on the Escambia County Legislative Delegation. The delegation—consisting of Rep. Clay Ingram, Rep. Clay Ford and Sen. Greg Evers—listened quietly in the shadows of the Jean and Paul Amos Performance Studio.
Rev. Branch, a minister at the First United Methodist Church in Pensacola, ran down a list of unpalatable statistics for the legislators. He talked about Escambia’s nearly 1,400 juvenile arrests last year, more than half of which were for misdemeanors. He alluded to a school-arrest rate 67 percent higher than the state average. He made unsettling comparisons to Miami-Dade, a considerably larger county with considerably better stats.