“These numbers should concern us,” Branch told the legislative delegation, “not just because we are throwing these children’s lives away, but because we as a state are spending over $525 million a year on juvenile justice and the arrest of children for minor infractions, overusing juvenile detention and locking away children in residential care when they can be better served in the community makes us less safe, not more.”
As Branch addressed the delegation, members of the ECYJC stood in a show of support. The group formed last year in an effort to address issues pertaining to juvenile justice in Escambia.
“I guess a simple way to put it,” Branch later explained the group’s aspirations, “would be to not be one of the leaders in Florida for how much we arrest our youth.”
Juvenile arrest rates, the associated costs and negative impacts on young lives are concerns throughout the country. Florida is considered a particular hotspot, with Escambia taking dubious honors in the state.
“Florida might be one of the worst offenders in the whole country, just based on sheer numbers,” said David Utter, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2011-2012, nearly 100,000 youths were referred to the Florida juvenile justice system; about half of these cases involved misdemeanors. Numbers have actually decreased over the past few years.
While Escambia’s numbers have also fallen, the number of misdemeanors referrals remains fairly constant. From 2010 to 2012 they actually shot up from 801 to 934.
When kids enter the state’s juvenile justice system, the odds stack up against them pretty quick. Return trips are common.
“Almost half of the kids that are coming out of our program are getting rearrested,” said Secretary Walters. “We don’t think that’s acceptable.”
The juvenile justice secretary noticed something was amiss a while back. Back when she was director of Miami-Dade County Juvenile Services Department.
“In the late ‘90s we began to realize we were doing a lot of things that weren’t making sense,” Walter recalled. “The system itself was just kind of chugging itself along and it just didn’t make sense.”
After making some changes aimed at steering kids away from the judicial system—making full use of civil citations, connecting youths with counseling and other aid—the secretary saw improvements. Recidivism rates dropped 80 percent, detention centers went from being beyond capacity to half-empty.
“If you start to address the root issue of why that kid is acting out, you can keep him from coming back,” Walters said.
The secretary is now taking what she learned in Miami-Dade and looking to expand that philosophy throughout Florida. Her plan is laid out in the DJJ’s Roadmap to System Excellence. There’s a town hall tour with a Jan. 31 Escambia date.
“It is a new approach on a larger scale,” Morris explained the secretary’s plan outside the cafeteria. “She figured, ‘you know what, this worked in Miami-Dade, let’s try it all over the state.’”
The possibilities of such a direction must sound encouraging to Rev. Branch. His group often holds up Walter’s old stomping grounds as a bar of comparison, something to strive for.
“Miami-Dade is one of the best counties in the way they treat their juveniles,” Branch said. “They’re not just doing a little bit, they jumped in with both feet, completely.”
Walter’s Roadmap is an attempt to address the same concerns voiced by the Escambia youth justice coalition. An attempt to keep kids out of the system.
“We need to salvage our children,” said Brown-Curry. “If you don’t get to the root of the problem, we’re not solving anything.”