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Big Session Ahead For Juvenile Justice Legislation

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State Capitol (Source: David Sutta/CBS4)

State Capitol (Source: David Sutta/CBS4)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – The Legislature is expected to take up major changes to Florida’s juvenile-justice system during the 2014 session, looking to put more emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation for youthful offenders.

Lawmakers also face the challenge of bringing the state into compliance with U.S. Supreme Court rulings on sentencing guidelines for underage offenders — after three straight years in which they couldn’t agree.

And they must decide how to divide the costs of locking up juvenile offenders between Florida’s 67 counties and the state Department of Juvenile Justice after a ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate panel that oversees the criminal and civil justice budget, said the percentages were still being negotiated.

“But whatever solution we come to, the counties will know what’s expected from them before their budget year begins so they can budget accordingly,” Bradley said Thursday.

With juvenile crime down, Bradley said, Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters’ prevention-and-diversion strategy had proven itself. According to the department, delinquency in Florida is declining in all categories, with the overall number of juvenile arrests down 23 percent since 2011.

Meanwhile, the use of civil citations to divert first-time delinquents has spread from seven to 52 counties during the same period. Civil citations allow first-time, non-violent offenders to receive early-intervention services instead of detention. The program has a 96 percent success rate at keeping kids from re-offending.

Civil citations also save money, enabling the department to divert those offenders who don’t threaten public safety and focus resources on the ones who do. It costs an average of $40,873 per year to house a juvenile in a detention facility, but $2,000 for prevention and diversion services. DJJ estimates it saved as much as $33.7 million in fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13 due to civil citations.

Lawmakers like the public-safety implications and the cost savings.

Now, with increasing support from state leaders and local communities, Walters wants to put prevention services into state law. She’s backing a measure (SB 700 and HB 7055) that would rewrite laws that govern her agency, with a focus on keeping kids from coming into the juvenile-justice system in the first place. As far as she knows, Walters said, “We will be the first state in the United States that will actually have prevention as part of the juvenile-justice system.”

The rewrite would also create criminal penalties for abusing or neglecting young people in Department of Juvenile Justice custody and let the department provide transition services for those who are leaving facilities.

A broad coalition of children’s advocates and policy groups — including the James Madison Institute and the Southern Poverty Law Center — supports the rewrite, especially its emphasis on prevention.

But the coalition also wants more protections for the confidentiality of children’s records, which members see “as paramount for a child to have a successful future, including enrolling in school, securing housing, and obtaining employment.”

Here are more details about issues facing the juvenile-justice system during the legislative session, which starts Tuesday:

JUVENILE SENTENCING

The Legislature has been trying to pass a juvenile sentencing law since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case known as Graham v. Florida that life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. That decision was followed in 2012 by a case known as Miller v. Alabama, in which the high court ruled that juveniles convicted of murder can still face life sentences, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing the sentences.

This year, juvenile sentencing bills passed their first committees in each chamber early in February. The House bill (HB 7035) by Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, unanimously passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. It attempts to comply with the rulings by setting guidelines based on the severity of crimes. For example, in the most-severe murder cases, known as capital felonies, juvenile offenders could receive life sentences. If judges determine life sentences are not appropriate, the juveniles would have to be sentenced to at least 30 years in prison. The bill includes different guidelines for other types of murder cases and serious non-homicide crimes.

The House proposal is considered less restrictive than the Senate measure (SB 384), sponsored by Bradley. For example, under the Senate bill, a juvenile convicted on a capital-felony murder charge would receive a sentence of at least 35 years if the judge opted against life imprisonment.

Both Grant and Bradley have said they’re confident they can come to a compromise.

“What everyone agrees is that we need to come to a solution this year on this issue,” Bradley said.

COST SHARING FOR JUVENILE DETENTION

The Department of Juvenile Justice faced a budget hole after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of counties, which argued they were being asked to pick up too much of the tab for juvenile detention.

Lawmakers approved a budget amendment earlier this month as part of a plan to fill a $35.5 million deficit at the department. The Legislative Budget Commission, a group of House and Senate members that oversees mid-year changes to the state’s spending plan, gave the go-ahead for department to use $5.9 million from delayed contracts to help plug the hole in its budget.

In all, the agency is shifting around $17.1 million to help cover the shortfall, much of it approved earlier by the Legislative Budget Commission. Another $18.4 million is expected to be handled through a provision in the budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

GOVERNOR’S BUDGET RECOMMENDATIONS

Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 budget recommendations include $18.2 million for services such as crisis management, clinical counseling, therapy and medical care for juveniles in residential facilities.

Walters said trauma is responsible for many juveniles’ getting into trouble.

“The vast majority of children who make their way to the deeper end of our juvenile-justice system are routinely children who have been neglected, have been abused and have been traumatized much of their lives,” she said.

Scott’s budget proposal includes $1.5 million to develop a system of care for human-trafficking victims, who often need very complex services, and $637,500 for programming for at-risk girls.

But the Children’s Campaign, one of the advocacy groups in the coalition, has questions about the department’s budget.

“The Department of Juvenile Justice received a $14 million budget increase,” the group noted. “The Children’s Campaign is doing the math and asking questions. If $36 million is needed to address the state’s detention shortfall and federal decisions, what cuts are being made to existing services and/or infrastructure to make up the difference?”

“The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.”

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