What's Next Legislatively For Florida's Juvenile Justice System In 2017?

Dec 2, 2016

Credit Florida Department of Juvenile Justice

What’s on tap for Florida’s Juvenile Justice system in 2017? Officials have comprised their legislative wish list, aimed at helping both juveniles and the staff who cares for them.

Decriminalizing adolescence is among Senate President Joe Negron’s (R-Stuart) top priorities. In his past, Negron has gotten into trouble for some pranks he did as a child, like throwing water balloons at passing cars.

In his later teens, Negron also recalls the time he and his friends were supporting Ronald Reagan for President over George H.W. Bush. Negron happened to live near Jupiter Island—where the Bush family had a residence.

“So, one day, when I was driving home, I thought it would be really amusing if people from the Island drove passed the Bush residence and instead of it saying ‘Bush,’ it had a ‘Reagan’ sticker,” said Negron, on his first official day as Senate President. “So I found somebody that was interested in this endeavor. And, so, we drove over to the Island, and we drove up to the Bush property. I snuck onto the property. I put two…Reagan sticker on one side and Reagan sticker on the other side, and just for good measure, we put some Reagan signs all over Jupiter Island, put a few stickers here and there, and then we raced off over the bridge back to where we belonged.”

He says after that, he and his friend went home.

“And, I was feeling this incredible rush of adrenaline. I’m walking into the kitchen and the phone’s ringing, and this is before caller ID,” added Negron. “And, I was really amped up. And, so, I picked up the phone and I said, ‘Ronald Reagan headquarters. May I help you?’ And, the voice on the other end said, ‘this is Lt. so and so with the Jupiter Island Police Department. You have defaced property of one of our residence. You have put signs and other paraphernalia on the Island, which is a violation of our ordinances and littering.’ Suddenly, it didn’t seem quite so amusing.”

But, Negron says, thankfully, the officer let him off the hook.

“He says, ‘I’ll tell you what we’re going to do,” continued Negron.  “I’m going to give you 40 minutes to get back over to the Island to remove the stickers from the Bush sign, to pick up all the signs, and to leave everything as you found it, and this is never going to happen again. Do I make myself clear?’ And, I said, ‘yes, sir.’ And, I got in my car, I drove back over to the Island, and I undid all of our mischief and that was the end of that.”

And, Negron says had the officer decided to arrest him, he would have been on the path of a law-breaker—and not the lawyer and lawmaker he is today.

“Let me just give you a list of crimes that were committed during this extravaganza: criminal mischief, defacing property, trespassing, fleeing and attempting to allude, and since there were two of us, it’s a conspiracy,” he concluded. “I would probably still be explaining this on bar exam questions, on law school applications, on questions at editorial board interviews, [saying] ‘it’s not as bad as it sounds.’ So, I understand the issue and I understand the importance of preventative and restorative approaches in juvenile justice and I look forward to the Senate’s work.”  

But, he says it’s important to not only talk about the challenges, but also, the strides that the juvenile justice system is making. The Governor recently announced that the number of juvenile arrests is at the lowest it’s been in 40 years.

And, Meredith Stanfield says the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice wants to continue making those gains. She’s DJJ’s Legislative Affairs Director.

“Several of our priorities support our goal of expanding delinquency prevention services to at-risk youth to prevent their involvement in the juvenile justice system,” she said, during .

That includes $2.8 million to expand the Pace Center for Girls statewide as well as $500,000 to expand truancy prevention efforts in parts of the Panhandle.

But, she says another of their top priorities is taking care of high understaffing levels.

“The department is experiencing high turnover in direct care staff, which has led to high vacancy rates and a high level of inexperience within staff ranks that compromises safety for both youth and staff,” Stanfield added. “The department requests $5.8 million in funding for a performance based-incentive program, which will help the department retain those employees with positive performance evaluations and no discipline who have made a commitment to the department and ensure the continuity of care for our youth.”

DJJ is also looking for funding to help secure employment for released juvenile offenders, maintenance and facility repairs, and providing oversight to private vendors.

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