Advocates Make Last-Ditch Plea For Juvenile Justice Bills To Be Heard

Apr 9, 2013

Florida’s 2013 legislative session is more than halfway over and that has some advocates of legislation scrambling to get their bills heard. One group is making a last-ditch plea for lawmakers to take up four measures dealing with changes to the state’s juvenile justice system.

“I was arrested for being involved in a fight in school last year. But it wasn’t really a fight, I was the only person who was hit.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Pensacola high school student Evan Polk’s story isn’t unique. Advocates say the state’s zero tolerance policy is leading to an alarming rate of schoolyard arrests. State Senator Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay is sponsoring a bill that would punish law enforcement for not using discretion when arresting children at school.

“Law enforcement, community policing has to adhere to the current existing statutes. Otherwise, you’re going to see districts lose their money and that’s the approach that has to be taken at this point,” Bullard said.

Bullard helped amend the zero tolerance policy in 2009. Now he says the law needs more teeth to help ensure officers aren’t arresting kids for minor infractions or misconduct.  That’s only one of four measures juvenile justice advocates are trying to get heard. Another deals with the use of civil citations instead of arresting minors for misdemeanors.  Representative Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, a Democrat from Pompano Beach, thinks civil citations can actually improve public safety.

“By requiring law enforcement to provide every child facing the first offense misdemeanor with a civil citation or another diversion program, rather than criminal arrest and possible incarceration, we can save thousands of young people’s lives and improve public safety,” Clarke-Reed said.

A third bill in the legislature would repeal a 2011 law that gives law enforcement more discretion in how they detain minor offenders. Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner of Tampa said after she heard that Polk County Sheriffs staff detained minors and also carried pepper spray; she wanted make sure all juvenile detention centers have standards subject to the Department of Juvenile Justice’s oversight.

“I made my promise then and there that I would protect the children and that no other sheriff could take over juvenile detention without DJJ oversight,” Joyner said.

Senator Audrey Gibson, a Democrat from Jacksonville is sponsoring a fourth bill that would change how the state treats juvenile offenders. Her bill deals with how solitary confinement is used for incarcerated minors. She believes there should be different rules for kids and adults.

“There is no state law or department of corrections solitary confinement regulation differentiating treatment of minors from adults and we all know that children are different from adults,” Gibson said.

So far, Gibson’s solitary confinement bill is the only bill to be heard in committee. The other three have yet to be scheduled and without the support of leadership, its unlikely the bills will be passed before the end of session. Advocates hand delivered letters to both the Speaker of the House and Senate President asking for their support.