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Thursday August 21st 2014

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How to Kill the Monster that Eats Children

Unfolding the Roadmap

Secretary Walters has been taking her Roadmap all over Florida. The juvenile justice department is on tour.

“It is primarily a listening tour,” Walters said. “The biggest shock to me is that these meetings have been relatively positive. I haven’t been yelled at.”

The town hall meetings focus on the department’s new direction. It’s a chance to rollout the Roadmap to System Excellence, which stresses “reducing juvenile delinquency through effective prevention, intervention and treatment services that strengthen families and turn around the lives of troubled youth.”

“Amazingly enough, almost every single entity we have met with overwhelmingly supports the direction we are going,” the secretary said.

One of the tenants of the Roadmap is to “reserve serious sanctions” for kids who “pose the greatest risk to public safety.” In other words, children would be cut some slack on misdemeanors and minor incidents.

“You start to catch the kinds of things that would send kids down a pathway where they don’t have any options,” Walters said.

The secretary pointed to zero-tolerance policies as a cause of some arrests that maybe should have been handled non-judicially. In Escambia’s case, the lack of a consistent civil citation program has also been a problem.

“I think that probably contributes to it,” Walters said of the county’s stats, adding that a juvenile should face a consistent landscape across the state.

In addition to diverting kids away from the judicial system, the secretary also expects the plan described in the Roadmap to be less expensive.

“I felt constantly in a state of alert, afraid of even the smallest mistake”-Edward Ward

“For every juvenile that is arrested, you engage half a dozen different agencies,” she began repeating LaVoy’s sentiments. “We literally could put kids in hotels with room service and save money.”

Walters is looking at using more electronic bracelets to monitor offenders. At connecting kids with services instead of detaining them. And, of course, civil citations.

“You start giving an officer options,” the secretary said. “We need to have options.”

But this philosophy does encounter pushback.

“There’s always a concern on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors that we are going to impact their ability to deal with serious offenders,” Walters said.

In addition to skittish authorities, there’s also the business end of the equation. There are industries built around juvenile justice.

“To be honest, yes, we have had some providers that have expressed concerns—they like what they’re doing and they don’t want things to change,” Walters said. “It’s a business model change, I think these things are always challenging to people.”

The secretary and her team will be in Pensacola Jan. 31 to discuss the Roadmap. She stresses that the plan merely “codifies” a direction the state is already heading.

“In a nutshell,” Walters said, “the direction we’re moving is trying to be much more proactive keeping kids in school and out of the justice system.”

Mapping Out Escambia

Kids best walk the straight and narrow in Escambia. Stepping off that line could be a hard fall. With an on-again-off-again civil citation program, local youth face arrests for incidents better suited for second-chances and community intervention.

“I think right now we just don’t have an alternative,” said Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “It’s got one way to deal with it.”

The superintendent is currently involved in a group discussion with the juvenile justice department, local law enforcement and judicial officials—the “stakeholders.” They’re trying to figure out how to rely more on civil citations.

“I’m advocating for civil citation,” Thomas said. “It may not put ‘em in a system where they may go deeper.”

The Escambia school district reinstated its civil citation program last fall. The stakeholders are looking at the possibilities of venturing off campus.

“What we are trying to do is to put things in place where we can expand that program,” said Wallis, explaining that any law enforcement officer—at school or in the community—would have the option to issue a civil citation instead of making an arrest.

A level playing field is an important factor to the superintendent.

“I want to see us be consistent,” Thomas said. “I don’t want a rule for the school and a rule for the community.”

As of yet, the stakeholders have not agreed on how a broader civil citation program might function locally. Which kids would be candidates for such a path? What infractions would be eligible for a civil citation?

“They’ve just got to decide which ones they’re comfortable with and which one’s they’re not comfortable with,” said Rev. Branch, who has been privy to the discussions as part of the youth justice coalition.

According to Wallis, an agreement will be reached soon.

“We’re probably within a month or so from being in a position to roll things out county-wide,” the DJJ official said.

Over at the state attorney’s office, Marjy Anders conceded the group would wrap up talks soon, but that more time at the table was needed.

“We are going to have an agreement, it’s just a matter of scope,” she said. “Is it going to be school or county or circuit?”

Sgt. Huffman has been representing the Pensacola Police Department in the local discussions. He sounded encouraged.

“We’re hoping that this is going to be the start of better things,” Huffman said. “You know, not just an assembly line.”

Earlier, as Huffman had sat among the circle of students in the high school cafeteria, the DJJ’s Morris said something worth noting. Meant only as a comforting assurance for the exercise of the moment, his words could well serve as a philosophical blueprint for a sane juvenile justice model.

“This is a safe place,” Morris had told the circle. “We want young people to feel comfortable, we want officers to feel comfortable.”

ESCAMBIA COUNTY YOUTH JUSTICE COALITION TOWN HALL
WHEN: 10 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 26
WHERE: First United Methodist Church, Wesley Abbey, 6 E. Wright St.

DJJ’S ROADMAP TO SYSTEM EXCELLENCE TOWN HALL
WHEN: 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 31
WHERE: Pensacola State College

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