Juvenile crime has declined 28 percent in Highlands County during the past four years. The question is why.
“I’ve checked the clerk of court’s numbers against ours, and we’re within a few,” Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin confirmed. “But the types of cases we’re seeing are more serious now: more firearms, more sex crimes, more violence.”
He looked up the crimes prosecuted from 2008-2010. “We had a lot of car-fishing (thefts from unlocked cars) cases. We didn’t have that last year.”
But the larger reason for the decline, Houchin thought, was that law enforcement officers have been empowered to exercise more discretion. “They have the school deal with the problem, talk to the kid and get things solved without taking the kid to jail. Which is a good thing.”
“I think it’s a combination of things,” said Sheriff Susan Benton. “It’s what happens when you attack a problem of a comprehensive nature. You can’t just do law enforcement, you have to do intervention, you have to do prevention.
“We’ve continued to push through D.A.R.E. in the elementary and middle schools,” Benton said of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers. “When you think of the work the (school resource officers) do, they could intervene in a fight or maybe a stolen laptop, and they could get an arrest, or they can intervene with the kids before it gets to that point. Because of that discretion, many times no arrests take place.
“They can release the kid right there, at the school or to a guardian, and the kid gets a notice of appointment,” the sheriff said. “He can go to the Department of Juvenile Justice, and he gets logged in. If it’s his first offense, and it’s a minor crime, they can have him write a letter of apology or whatever is appropriate, and it doesn’t have to be filed by the state attorney.”
Another option: “Here’s the real key,” Benton said, “the deputies who are on patrol, they know Johnny has a 7 o’clock curfew. So they knock on the door and ask, ‘Mrs. Smith, is Johnny here?’ If he’s there, the deputy logs it in the system; he’s in compliance. If he’s not, he writes a report, and that goes to DJJ. They can bring Johnny back into court for violating probation.
“If Johnny is out at the mall at 9 p.m. and kids are raising Cain, the deputy can either check on his car computer or call into a dispatcher, and it will immediately pop up if Johnny is on a juvenile probation, who his case worker is, and the deputy can arrest him for violation of probation.”
“They know we know,” Benton said, “so we have a much higher level of compliance.”
Some parents are overwhelmed by problem children, Benton said. “Many parents feel hopeless. They have such a difficult time parenting. It’s difficult. Now, they can call us and say, ‘It’s 9 o’clock and Johnny is supposed to be here and he’s not.’
Highlands also has its own Children’s Advocacy Center, where law enforcement, welfare, juvenile justice and other concerned parties can meet with offenders and victims. “If we identify a problem with a kid, we can have all the players at the table there.”
“There are fairly substantial reductions in almost every major offense category, including the most serious juvenile offenses,” according to the DJJ website. “Today, Floridians are substantially less likely to be the victim of crime involving a juvenile than at any other time since the Department started tracking this statistic in 1990.”
Florida’s juvenile arrest rate is down from 76 to 52 per 1,000 juveniles from fiscal year 2007-08 to 2011-12.
Felony arrests are down 35 percent. In individual categories, auto theft arrests have declined 50 percent, aggravated assault and battery 35 percent, armed robbery 48 percent, sexual battery 18 percent, murder-manslaughter 49 percent, burglary 24 percent, drug felonies 55 percent, drug misdemeanors 26 percent and alcohol offenses 34 percent.
The state’s criminal justice system has been so successful with alternatives to locking up juveniles, there’s a burgeoning movement to increase the use of non-jail diversion programs with nonviolent adult offenders.
Backers of the idea announced on Oct. 30 an agreement with Leon County. Police will have the ability to issue civil citations to offenders who commit lesser offenses, rather than taking them to jail.
“We have considered that,” Houchin said, “not just in Highlands but for the (10th Judicial) Circuit overall.”
Even so, Houchin said, “the sheriff’s office and DJJ already use a lot of sound discretion on whether to arrest someone or not. We have a number of diversion programs. Teen Court is one of them.”
“It really is fantastic,” Lenihan said. “It has gained popularity throughout the state.”
Teen Court is limited — with few exceptions — to misdemeanor offenders under age 18.
Offenders, she said, “get the option of Teen Court, and it won’t show up on their records. They have to admit they are guilty, and they are adjudicated by their peers.”
That admission can’t be used against defendants if they wind up later in circuit court, said Judge Angela Cowden.
Lenihan’s part is to help prepare student lawyers before they walk into Courtroom 1A. “They go with real attorneys into separate rooms, review the police reports, help develop opening statements, questions, closing statements and suggested punishment.”
Additionally, the defense attorney gets to interview the defendant. “So they have a little more knowledge about what’s happening, which is what happens in real life too,” Lenihan said. Circuit Court Judges Cowden or Peter Estrada usually preside.
Some defendants come away knowing they have narrowly avoided jail, Lenihan said. “A lot of them are really shy; a lot of them are scared to death. They can’t believe they got into trouble. Some of them regret it; some of them just regret getting caught, and they’ll tell you, ‘This is not going to change much.’
One motivation for bullies and criminals is to gain peer approval, according to Education.com and Futureofchildren.org. Lenihan has seen criminals who expected approval from Teen Court jurors.
“I believe it does,” said Cowen, who presides over felony court. “If these children can be reached while they are impressionable, they do respond positively.”
Teen Court offenders “have a very low recidivism or re-offense rate,” Cowden said.
“What we really do try to impress upon them, especially when they are older, is, ‘Do you have plans for college, for a career?’” Lenihan said. “We’ve heard a lot of them say that they want to be a police officer or join the military. A criminal record is really going to hurt them. A few of them wise up.”
The magistrate doesn’t decide guilt or punishment, Lenihan said; that’s the teen jury’s job. “If they don’t feel that sorry for what they did, the jury will give them a stiffer punishment.” Penalties may include jury service, community service, restitution, drug testing, curfew or writing an essay or apology letter.
“I will not change any sentence,” Cowden said, “but I may bring them to the podium and read them the Riot Act. I’ll ask them, ‘Are you planning on following the recommendation?’
“I have a passion for Teen Court, I really, really do,” Cowden said. “That’s why I participate in it. That’s why I talk to them like I’m their mama.”