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Florida Senate Considers Juvenile Justice Legislation

The inside of the Florida Senate Chamber
Florida Memory

The Florida Senate is considering more juvenile justice legislation. It’s looking at measures classifying certain kids as prolific offenders and changing sentencing for juveniles who commit felonies.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said some kids in the state are committing armed robberies, burglaries and stealing cars. But courts can only hold them in detention for three weeks before trial and they can only be held for 15 days after being convicted.

“These kids are out there with high recidivism, wreaking havoc, committing crimes that are very serious crimes because there’s no fear of consequence," he said. "And the reason why there’s no fear of consequence, quite honestly, is there is no consequence.”

The Tampa Bay Times reported that Pinellas led the state in juvenile grand theft auto arrests in 2015. Legislation by Tampa Rep. James Grant creates a class of “prolific juvenile offenders.” People younger than 18 years old would be considered prolific if they’re charged with a crime that would be a felony if they were an adult, or they’ve committed a felony prior to the current charge, or have been arrested or convicted for breaking the law five times or more, with three of those being felonies.

The measures would keep the offenders in custody for up to 21 days and then release them on electronic monitoring. Prosecutors would have 45 days instead 21 days to prepare for a trial or work out a plea deal. Kids would be kept in custody after being found guilty instead of going home.

Grant said about 400 kids would be impacted at a cost of nearly 6 million dollars to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“It addresses concerns about recidivisms where in many cases members some of these serial, serious juvenile offenders are actually being sent by us in the criminal justice system back into the very environment where there was the problem," he said. "So there isn’t a bed for them, there isn’t a place where we can get them to begin a treatment rehabilitation process. And instead, they’re going back to the same environment.”

Meanwhile, a separate bill by Sen. David Simmons allows judges sentence someone as a youthful offender if they committed the felony while under the age of 21. Under youthful sentencing guidelines… probation can’t exceed six years and time in prison can’t be longer than six years. Simmons says delays in the judicial system force judges to sentence youth to more time.

Bob Dillinger of the Florida Public Defender Association said the measure puts the law back to how it was originally.

“We do recognize that youthful offenders can need different treatment, primarily because we don’t want them to come back into the system," he said. "When there was a delay by sentencing, it took that right away. That privilege of going into additional youthful services, educational and employment services.”

Simmons’ bill had bipartisan support in committee meetings. But time is running out this session for legislation to pass both chambers. The legislature is scheduled to finish on Friday.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.