TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – As Florida’s legislative session gets underway next week, some lawmakers are calling for measures to help teens move on after paying their dues in the juvenile-justice system.
Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, joined children’s advocates on Thursday in Jacksonville, saying he would support efforts to give kids a “second chance.” Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, is sponsoring a bill (SB 1316) that would allow the expunging of records for minors who commit nonviolent misdemeanors and go on to complete diversion programs.
Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, are sponsoring a proposal (SB 334, HB 205) that would shorten the length of time juvenile offenses stay on the record for minors who aren’t serious or habitual offenders.
The problem, said Dina Sarver, 22, a medical scribe in Port St. Lucie, is that a juvenile record can lock young people out of jobs, colleges, housing and the military — for the rest of their lives.
“I appreciate the juvenile justice system,” Sarver said. “But after I’ve shown them the system can work, I’m constantly reminded of the crime I committed as a child. … I’m speaking for juveniles who have turned their lives around, proven that the juvenile-justice system is beneficial and want to get on with their lives.”
Her crime was grand-theft auto, committed when Sarver was 15 years old. She said she’d become a delinquent at 12, following her parents’ divorce and her mother’s relocation — along with 10 children — from the suburbs to government-subsidized housing. Sarver started working at age 13.
“I was very angry at the world,” she said. At 15, she was incarcerated. But when she had a baby the following year, Sarver said, she cleaned up her act. “I was like, OK, I need to be a better person for my son.”
Kelly Otte executive director of the PACE Center for Girls in Tallahassee, has heard many such stories.
“You’re 14 years old. You make a stupid decision to do something. You end up being in the juvenile justice system, and six years later it means nothing to you, what you did. You’re not even the same person,” Otte said.
Today, Sarver has a degree in health-care management from Indian River State College and plans to take the LSAT exam, for law school, in June. But she had to switch her major from the nursing program, to which she’d been accepted, when her record came to light. And she was nearly expelled a month before her eventual graduation, when her record became an issue again, over a key internship. Even now, she can’t chaperone the kids at her son’s school.
Currently, in Florida, most juvenile records aren’t expunged until the offender is 24, and for some crimes not until age 26. Since most job and college applications require disclosing an arrest, those with juvenile records often find the doors slammed — no matter what gains they’ve made in their lives.
What’s more, according to the Children’s Campaign and the Dolores Barr Weaver Policy Center, between 70 percent and 90 percent of girls in the juvenile system have experienced sexual violence, abuse and neglect in their homes. To escape the trauma, many girls run away from home — a crime if they’re under 18.
“The first thing that experts tell adult women in abusive situations to do is leave their homes to escape their abusers, yet doing so often puts girls on a fast track to being locked up,” Lawanda Ravoira, president and chief executive officer of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, said in a statement.
Bean and Ravoira joined Children’s Lobby spokesman Roy Miller and Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project on Accountable Justice, in Jacksonville on Thursday. They called for new laws that allow most juvenile records to remain confidential and to be retained only until the offender reaches 21. They also want to automatically expunge records upon completion of diversion programs or in cases where charges were dismissed or unsubstantiated.
Democrats have filed the bills that would accomplish much of that during the upcoming legislative session. But DeFoor pointed to the involvement of Bean, a Senate Republican, as a sign that the bills can succeed in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“I don’t think it’s going to end up being a partisan issue,” DeFoor said. “It’s almost closer to a glitch bill than it is to a substantive change in policy.”
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.