Bills To Help Young Abuse Victims, Youthful Offenders Pass First Senate Panel

Mar 14, 2017

Cosmo is an 11-year-old border collie who used to be a ranch dog. He’s since retired, and has been a therapy dog for five years with his team partner, Tanya Cody.
Credit Florida Channel

Bills to help some of the state’s most vulnerable Floridians as well as youthful offenders have passed their first Senate committee.

Therapy Dogs In Court

“Cosmo, sit,” said Tanya Cody. “Can you sit?”

Cosmo is an 11-year-old border collie who used to be a ranch dog. He’s since retired, and has been a therapy dog for five years with his team partner, Tanya Cody.

Both are part of a long-standing program called the Florida Courthouse Therapy Dogs, the largest and oldest courthouse therapy dog program in the state.

Chuck Mitchell—who leads the Tallahassee program—says he’s worked with his own dog for about 10 years in the courts on many cases.

“In every single case that I ever worked—and they only call us in generally on the cases where the kids are having a hard time finding their voice and testifying—the kids were able to find their voice and were able to testify,” said Mitchell. “I’ve had prosecutors tell me that my dog was the difference in their ability to get a conviction and to get a predator off the streets. I’ve had mothers tell me that my dog was the difference in their child being able to get through this and to have a positive memory, instead of a negative memory of what happened to them.”

Current law allows for trial court judges to permit sexual abuse victims—typically young—to use a service or therapy animal. Some circuits in the state have taken advantage of the statute, like Leon County.

But, not included in the law is allowing service or therapy animals for other cases, like child abuse, abandonment, and neglect—though some circuits are already doing that anyway.

So, Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation)—a child sex abuse survivor and advocate—is hoping to update the statute, which also expands the type of specialized court-trained animals who can help child victims.

“The bill changes the statute to reflect current practice throughout judicial circuits,” she said. “Specifically, the bill allows a court to permit a victim or witness to testify with the assistance of a facility dog, like Cosmo, in a proceeding involving a sexual offense. A victim or witness may be eligible to use a facility dog if he or she has an intellectual disability or if he or she was a minor when a victim of or witnessed to a sexual offense.”

Human Trafficking

Another bill to help young sex trafficking victims has also passed the Senate Criminal Justice committee. It’s by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah).

He says a report notes children in the foster care system—who are identified as human trafficking victims—are tracked and receive services through the Florida Department of Children and Families.

But, those same protections don’t exist for kids not involved in the child welfare system.

“DCF does not have a way to track them as well as a way to offer services to them,” said Garcia. “So, what we’re doing with SB 852 is exactly that is making sure to track and identify these children that are outside of a non-dependent system and ensure they receive the services to hopefully make sure they don’t become human trafficking victims again.”

Youthful Offender Sentencing

The last measure by Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) aims to correct what he calls a glitch in Florida law.

Today, if a person commits a crime before they were 21, they’d be eligible for a youthful offender sentence. But, if they turn 21 as they await sentencing, they would no longer be eligible.

So, Simmons’ bill changes that to say, ‘if the person committed the felony before they turn 21,” the court can impose a youthful offender sentence.

“We do believe this is the way it should be,” said Pinellas County Public Defender Bob Dillinger. “If you committed a felony offense before you were age 21, you should be eligible for youthful offender [sentencing]…it shouldn’t be dependent on whether the case somehow got postponed til you’re over 21, and you can’t get youthful offender sentences even though you committed the offense when you were before 21.”

Dillinger, who represents the Florida Public Defenders Association, says it also allows these individuals to benefit from educational and employment services for youth.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.