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Stephen Wise Renews Push for Juvenile Justice Reform

October 4, 2011 - 6:00pm

Two years after the Legislature softened Florida's zero-tolerance law in schools to prevent students from being sent to juvenile justice facilities for minor offenses, lawmakers are eager to take a second crack at juvenile justice reforms.

Driving the push is Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, the chair of the Senate's education committee, who is using his clout to hone in on juvenile justice issues, holding hearings on the topic in preparation for a reform bill due out in early November.

On Wednesday, his committee heard testimony from juvenile justice reform advocates and the Department of Juvenile Justice. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday held a similar hearing.

He joins groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and TaxWatch in his effort to prevent more kids from ever reaching juvenile justice facilities, where statistics show they are more likely to become repeat offenders. Reducing the number of children in juvenile justice facilities could also produce huge cost savings for the state, with one TaxWatch estimate suggesting a savings of $49 million a year.

But Wise is also considering bringing the same accountability measures used in K-12 public schools to juvenile justice facilities, tying funding to performance outcomes such as learning gains and completion of work force training programs, and yanking funding if students don't show improvement.

"We want to know how these kids are doing, and if you are never based on outcomes, anything can happen," Wise said. "It doesn't make any difference whether the child learns anything or not, gets a job, or just moves on. You get paid for it. We are looking at outcomes in order to fund the kind of programs we are talking about."

Florida's zero-tolerance laws aimed at schoolchildren were first written in 1997, with rewrites to toughen the law up until 2002. Schools were required to use suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement as punishment. But seven years later, in 2009, lawmakers decided to soften the zero-tolerance law.

That year, the Legislature approved an overhaul of zero-tolerance policies that encouraged schools not to report students to a police officer who have committed minor offenses, such as fighting in school.

Groups like the NAACP say the danger in sending students to juvenile justice facilities is that it becomes hard to recover afterward, with data showing once students leave a DJJ facility, they are more likely than other students to commit a crime, never finish school or go to college, or obtain a job.

This problem disproportionately impacts blacks, who accounted for 47 percent of all referrals to DJJ facilities in the 2009-10 school year, according to a report put out by the ACLU, NAACP and Advancement Project.

This shift away from school referrals has partially worked. The number of students referred to DJJ facilities from schools has been slashed by more than 12,000 students over the last six years, according to the department.

But statistics show in the two years the weakened zero-tolerance law has been in effect, many schools are still reporting students to law enforcement for misdemeanor crimes such as disorderly conduct.

"When the law was first written, it was probably an overreaction," Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt told the Senate panel. "We were fearful and scared for our schools and our students." He noted the laws were written around the time of the Columbine school shooting, when schools were eager to crack down on misconduct and prevent the next tragedy.

"As time goes on we start to see that maybe we are a little too harsh," he said.

Though Wise has yet to reveal the specifics of his bill, he is paying attention to an interim report released by the Senate this week that suggests tying funding of DJJ facilities to "measurable student outcomes."

The report also urges a continued emphasis on civil citations over arrests. These citations usually involve community service instead of time at a juvenile justice facility and can result in substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling. A law passed this year mandated that all Florida communities offer civil citations.

Groups like the NAACP are also pushing for strengthening the 2009 law that backed off zero-tolerance by narrowly defining what behavior can permit a school to report a student to the police. The NAACP would also like to see more accountability measures applied to districts that refer students to DJJ facilities in violation of the law, and make funding for school-based police officers contingent on the reduction of arrests.

Wise said a bill will likely come out the first week of November.

"We are concerned about what we do to our young people, so we don't disenfranchise them for the rest of their lives over something silly," he said.

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