Florida’s Troubled Prison, Juvenile Justice Systems Gearing Up For Overhaul

Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders. Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders.

By Christopher Zoukis

Following the launch of a new goal plan for the Florida Department of Corrections, big changes should be arriving in the beleaguered system, with several new pieces of legislation introduced and new budgetary items requested. All of the proposed changes are meant to reduce recidivism, increase safety for corrections officers and inmates, improve conditions and perhaps most significantly — help keep youth of out of the criminal justice system altogether.

While bills are still being debated, their tabling is a positive sign of improvements to come, and they are grounded in hard statistics and research showing the detrimental effects of the current system — including minors being arrested for misdemeanors. Currently in Florida there are three 7-year-olds in the criminal justice system for low-level, first-time offenses — something that sounds outrageously impossible, but sadly isn’t. Florida also has the highest level in the country of transferring children out of thejuvenile justice system and into adult court.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones has detailed plans focusing on inmate and officer safety, facility repairs, recruitment strategies for new corrections and probation officers, and hopes to open an 11th mental health facility to help inmates re-enter society. This proposed residential facility at Wakulla Correctional Institution would create new jobs for 104 full-time employees, in addition to enhancing current treatments.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly has similar goals, including increasing residential capacity, using evidence-based residential services, early intervention programs and improved assessment tools, expanding workplace education programs and also de-criminalizing youth.

Programs focusing on rehabilitating youth have a proven track record. For example, in 2015-2016, 60 percent of DJJ youth that participated in workplace education programs found employment, joined the military or went to school.

There have been marked changes in how what used to be considered innocent pranks are now dealt with. Senate President Joe Negron shared a personal story. In his youth he played a prank involving election signs on someone else’s property. Instead of being charged, he was warned and given a second chance by the officer who ordered him to go and clean up the mess, and never do it again. But today, Negron believes things would have gone differently. Perhaps he would have been charged with “criminal mischief, defacing property, trespassing, fleeing and attempting to elude, and since there were two of us, it’s a conspiracy,” he said. “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.’ ”

Misdemeanors and first-time offences resulting in arrests and charges greatly damages the prospects of our youth. Besides institutionalizing them and isolating them from their peers and communities, affected youth are plagued by a criminal record, which damages their  future employment and educational prospects. Recidivism rates are high.They are set up for failure.

Going forward, new legislation, though yet to be finalized, will mean that first-time youth offenders will receive mandatory civil citations instead of being arrested and entered into the criminal justice system. In addition to the citation, the person receiving it will be required to participate in programs such as community service and life skills, meet with community-impact panels, and may be referred for counseling. Currently, this system is voluntary, and applied unevenly across the state. In counties where this system is consistency applied, recidivism rates are lower, and any officer bias is prevented.

This approach results in less jail time and fewer criminal records for youth, sparing youth that really aren’t a threat to public safety from getting trapped in the system, and reduces costs and resources for processing youth in the court system. According to a recent Stepping Up report, increasing the use of civil citations statewide would significantly improve outcomes for more than 7,000 youth.

As the Corrections reform bill goes to the House floor, an amendment has been added to allow adults to enter a diversion program for certain crimes.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.