Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JUVENILE CRIME; Call for Leadership

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

JUVENILE CRIME; Call for Leadership

Article excerpt

It's difficult to say when Jacksonville's Juvenile Assessment Center began deteriorating.

The hard proof that it hit rock bottom is much easier to find.

Last January, the center's 19 state employees began evaluating troubled youths for detention or social services by telephone rather than in person.

That takes place in the 8th Street building that had housed nonprofit, judicial and law enforcement staff for 13 years.

The shift shouldn't have surprised anyone.

By the time Sheriff John Rutherford reassigned two correctional officers to handle youth offenders downtown, only Department of Juvenile Justice employees and one nonprofit were left at the center.

After operating two years without the officers, who pulled double duty as unofficial security, the inevitable happened. Two juvenile offenders escaped in June 2005.

Not surprisingly, the state's decision to convert to a call center followed.

WAITING FOR A FELONY

Even before the official announcement came, the sad impact to the community was clear.

Youths ineligible for detention had nowhere to wait on a parent or family member. Police officers with a juvenile would be taken off the street for hours at a time.

Therefore, police would make fewer arrests for lesser criminal activities, missing opportunities to redirect criminal behavior of juveniles.

Instead of arresting a kid stealing a candy bar, the first arrest tends to be for committing a violent act.

When youths would be arrested and sent to detention, they would be placed deeper into an overcrowded and underfunded system for a first-time offense.

The sad situation is plainly illustrated by data that show the state handled nearly 25 percent fewer youths between 2004 and last year, the call center's first 12 months of operation.

In other words, Northeast Florida's children are losing many chances to change bad behavior before it turns violent.

The shame of it is that agencies and state officials didn't fight harder to save the center. …

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