TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – About a week after protesters have situated themselves in a hallway at the state Capitol, Governor Scott, after listening to the protesters last Thursday, asked Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters to meet with the activists Monday.
The Dream Defenders, the group looking for answers in the wake of George Zimmerman being acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, spent Monday talking with Secretary Walters.
Governor Rick Scott spoke to the seven members of the group last Thursday night for about an hour. After speaking, and listening to some of their personal experiences, he asked Walters to lend them an ear as well.
“Many of the concerns that you brought to (Scott) are concerns that he feels very strongly about, that he shares,” Walters told the protesters, who were gathered in the governor’s office waiting area. “We have been working very hard to reform the juvenile justice system.”
The Dream Defenders have visited the Capitol before. The group also lobbied lawmakers on juvenile-justice bills that went nowhere during the spring session.
“We were looking for a repeal of zero-tolerance policy. We were looking for a way to get our children out of adult prisons. We were looking for a way to protect them in detention facilities. Said Ciara Taylor, the Dream Defenders spokeswoman, adding, “And you were silent the entire legislative session on those bills,” Taylor told Walters. “So what exactly are you pushing that you feel is going to make a positive change?”
Taylor was referring to three bills: SB 660, which would have required law enforcement to issue civil citations to juveniles with clean records who are accused of misdemeanors, SB 1374 which would have required schools with “zero-tolerance” policies for infractions on school grounds to report to law enforcement only serious school safety threats, and SB 506 that would have repealed a 2011 law allowing Florida counties to run their juvenile justice facilities.
Walters, who served on Scott’s transition team for law enforcement, became secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice partly on the strength of her success at implementing diversion programs such as civil citations when she directed the Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Department.
She told Taylor and the others that in Miami-Dade County, “95 percent of the kids who go into (the) civil citation (program) are children of color and 94 percent of them walk away without an arrest record.” That program also saved money on juvenile detention costs, and Walters had hoped to take it statewide.
But the civil citation bill was opposed by the powerful Florida Sheriffs Association.
“We also found that when you completely take away the authority and the power that a law enforcement officer has — which is the power to arrest or to warn and dismiss or something else — they will start to resist it and completely refuse,” Walters said.
Walters returned in the afternoon with data for the protesters on DJJ’s improvements over the last two years, including a 28 percent drop in school-based arrests and a 29 percent drop in first-time misdemeanor arrests.
Sixteen of Florida’s 67 counties are not using civil citations.
Although lawmakers weren’t particularly receptive to the Dream Defenders’ legislative agenda in 2013, next year might be a different story.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is working on a bill that addresses zero tolerance for student misbehavior in public schools. The Dream Defenders have maintained that zero tolerance channels minority youths out of school and into the juvenile justice system for minor infractions.
“Zero tolerance has always been controversial,” Montford said. The policy began as a way to discourage students from bringing guns and knives to school, he said. “Schools are supposed to be an atmosphere where children can feel safe and not be subjected to inappropriate behavior that interferes with their education.”
Montford wasn’t ready to discuss the specifics of his proposal, but he said more training and more dialogue are both essential.
“Those of us who vote on these issues need to spend some real serious time in schools,” he said.
The protesters also raised questions Monday about the Florida counties that run juvenile justice facilities. Seminole and Marion haven’t been controversial, but Polk has come in for criticism for its use of pepper spray, which Sheriff Grady Judd has said protects deputes and juveniles alike
House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley lives in Marion County, one of the three counties running juvenile detention facilities.
“The impression I’m getting from most of the professionals is that this is going very well, the way we’re doing it in Marion County,” said Baxley, R-Ocala. “I definitely hope we look at those counties that are having success, and make sure we are using a standard of that nature. It could be dismal if things weren’t done the right way.”
“The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.”