There are vast racial disparities when it comes to juvenile justice outcomes in North Florida. Now a Tallahassee judge is spearheading a sweeping effort to reverse that trend.
Members of the Tallahassee Rotary Club heard from Judge Bobby Long at their Wednesday luncheon meeting.
"I am your juvenile court judge for the Second Judicial Circuit," he told the members by way of introduction. "I handle all of the juvenile cases out of Leon County from start to finish, and then I also handle preliminary matters for the other five counties."
The other five counties being Jefferson, Gadsden, Wakulla, Franklin and Liberty. Judge Long likes hard evidence, especially numbers. He showed declining data for juvenile arrests nationwide and in Florida as a whole. But of all kids between the ages of 12 and 17 who are arrested in Florida, 62% are black. Then Long showed what he called the "breathtaking" figures for North Florida.
"Seventy-two percent of the kids who are arrested in the Second Circuit are black," he said, referring to a projected graph. "Eighty percent of the kids that are in secure detention are black youth. Seventy-nine percent of the kids that we send to our long-term commitment programs out of the Second Circuit are black youth."
While the region's overall African-American population is just 39%. Judge Long said there are many reasons for this disparity. But he also tells the kids who appear before him that they control the 5 keys to their own future.
"The five things are: graduate from high school; don't have children until you get married; once you get married, stay married; get a job, a minimum wage job, any job; and don't commit crimes."
But for those kids who are found guilty of crime, Judge Long said it's critical that the sentence they receive is the best motivator to keep them from re-offending. That's a process he says now relies on much more than the judge's whim on sentencing day.
"We are starting with what's a recommendation based on a holistic picture of this child and then we build upon that with what we see and hear in the courtroom," he explained. "The way the child acts and the things the child says, rather than starting and in some cases relying exclusively on that moment in time."
Still, the most vital factor in any child's life, thinks Judge Long, is the constant presence and influence of a stable, caring family. Something no court can provide.
"But the next best thing that I can give them is a stable, caring figure in their life, that's not there because it's their job, but because they care about them," he said. "They show up for baseball games, they want to know how they're doing in school, they take them to go get a bite to eat."
Which is why the circuit's juvenile court has now teamed up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Big Bend. Those mentors will be paired with lower risk kids who have gone off the rails in a concerted effort to get them back on track.