Guest column: New hope for smart justice regarding girls

The Florida-Times Union recently reported the sobering news that Duval and surrounding counties lead Florida in the number of girls who are incarcerated.

The Times-Union also reported that Voices for Florida and The Children’s Campaign recently partnered with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville sponsoring a community forum marking National Girls’ Justice Day.

Forum attendees heard about the treatment of girls from the center’s just-released report “A Wake-Up Call: Trends in Girls’ Involvement in the Justice System.” The report revealed shortcomings of the juvenile system, especially concerning the needs of girls.

Florida is lacking enough probation, treatment and diversion programs — the programs that research-based evidence demonstrates are needed to address the growing issues of girls being sexually assaulted, suffering from depression or other mental health problems.

This results in outcomes, such as girls running away from abusive homes and into a life of sex trafficking or other victimization.


As local citizens attending the forum sat in stunned silence, the news went from bad to worse. Speaker Jeffrey Goldhagen, a nationally recognized Jacksonville pediatrician, pointed out that until communities come together and change how we approach girls’ needs, “10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now, we are going to be talking about the need with no improvement in the tragic loss of potential …”

Attendees got the message: Our daughters and granddaughters can’t wait another decade or more.

Why haven’t we made progress? A key factor is lack of a coordinated “system of care” for girls.

Without it, we can’t provide the supports that enable our daughters and granddaughters to experience the quality of life we want for them.

A coordinated system is like a team of rowers, their oars rowing in unison.The boat seems to skim across the water effortlessly.

Just like the rowers, in a coordinated system of care for girls everyone works together in unison — from individual citizens to families to government at all levels — to move forward in one direction, focused and synchronized in addressing the needs of girls.

There is, however, new hope. An initiative recently launched in Jacksonville called Voices for Florida Girls was developed by leaders in the First Coast Community. They believe our community is ready to “get engaged” and bring greater public attention and action to the needs of girls.


Voices for Florida Girls is an affiliate program of Voices for Florida. Voices for Florida works on five key areas to turn the tide for girls.

These include: developing fact-based public policies, conducting fiscal and budget analysis for girls’ programs, recommending improvements to laws, conducting educational training on policy issues and reporting to citizens how public policies really impact our girls, families and communities. This integrated approach provides a foundation for building a coordinated system of care model for girls.

Ultimately, it is the involvement of citizens that will determine the success of Voices for Florida Girls. Citizens have the power to expand public conversation and encourage debates that lead to gender-specific programs that help girls — especially girls at-risk — reach their highest potential. Voices for Florida Girls invites citizens to know, share and engage to build a better future for girls. Your daughters and granddaughters of the First Coast are depending on you!

Learn more about Voices for Florida Girls at


Linda Alexionok of Tallahassee is president of Voices for Florida, a nonpartisan, statewide 501c3 organization


Email: [email protected].

School districts right to divert kids from life of crime


School districts right to divert kids from life of crime


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While the state of Florida cynically shovels more money into building prisons, school districts, most notably Miami-Dade and Broward, are working to ensure that fewer students end up there.

It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, created by overreaching, life-damaging zero tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. But school districts across the country are stepping back from this approach and from the zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. Throw a spitball? Call the cops. Throw a punch? Call the cops. Curse at a teacher? Unacceptable behavior, for sure. But is it so egregious as to earn a student a police escort off the campus in handcuffs? Hardly.

In an age that has seen students sow real chaos in schools — bringing in guns and drugs, physically assaulting teachers — funneling every last undisciplined student to jail is antithetical to a school system’s mission, however hard it is to carry out.

Miami-Dade and Broward County school districts have realized the damage being done to young lives and are among many across the country that have reversed course. Instead of a ride to jail, troubled students get counseling; instead of handcuffs, mentoring. This is absolutely the right way to handle such incidents. As a result, each district has managed to significantly cut the number of arrests in their schools.

Both counties report that arrests are down 30 percent to 40 percent this school year. Suspensions, too, have been reduced, which is a boon for both students and the neighborhoods in which they live. After all, troublemakers on suspension tend to get themselves into more trouble. Schools with the most suspensions were located in areas with the worst juvenile crime.

Good for the leaders of these two districts. They know that schools, however troubled, exist to put young people on the path to becoming educated, self-sufficient members of a community, not to put them on a one-way track to incarceration, with police records for such trivial infractions. Applaud, too, the NAACP for working with Broward schools to help bring about the change, and a clergy-based group called PACT, which has pushed for better options to suspension.

Schools finally are rewriting a disturbing story that never should have been started in the first place. However, Florida legislators, with their tough-on-crime swagger, imposed a statewide zero-tolerance policy for even small fights and minor thefts in schools. The consequences were needlessly dire. One bad decision, typical of teenagers — many of them, no doubt, raised by inept parents — led not only to a police record, but to a harder time down the road when they sought to get a job or a school loan or join the military. Black and Hispanic students bore the brunt of the ridiculous arrests.

In 2009, the Legislature pulled back from its hard-line stance and urged school districts to find alternatives to arrests. In Miami-Dade and Broward, the results are clear.

Now that lawmakers are coming to their senses, it’s past time for them to reconsider their approach to imprisoning and prosecuting juveniles as adults. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, based in Washington, Florida transfers more teens to adult court than any other state — this, even though, says Wansley Walters, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the number of juveniles so charged has dropped 62 percent in two and a half years.

Clearly, the state must do a better job diverting kids from crime and not turn them into criminals.

Read more here:


Children, even teenagers, don’t belong in adult jails

By Editorial Board, Published: October 15


WHAT DO you do with children suspected or convicted of committing very adult crimes? The answer isn’t easy, particularly when violence is involved. One thing that’s clear, though: Standing policy should not be to warehouse youth in adult jails and prisons, unless there are no other reasonable options. Encouragingly, a new report from the Campaign for Youth Justice finds that, over the past eight years, nearly half the states have changed various laws to discourage shunting minors through the adult criminal justice system when it isn’t necessary.

Research has shown that locking up minors anywhere is rarely a great way to prevent repeat offenses. But when they have to be incarcerated, they need safety, structure and education.

Teenagers are not fully developed; studies have shown that their brains aren’t as capable of moral reasoning and impulse control as adults in their early or mid-20s. They don’t have as much mastery over their environment as adults do, which contributes to their susceptibility to peer pressure and other potentially destructive influences. There is also more hope of rehabilitating young offenders. Those are among the reasons that the Supreme Court last year insisted, echoing a case from 1910, that punishment of minors must be properly “graduated and proportioned.”

Yet, the report notes, citing figures that are a few years old, there are some “100,000 youth who are placed in adult jails and prisons each year.” When minors are thrown into adult jails and prisons, often simply to await trial, they don’t get the structure and educational opportunities necessary for growth or rehabilitation. They are also extremely vulnerable to harm. “More than any other group of incarcerated persons,” a federal panel reported in 2009, “youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk for sexual abuse.”

Since 2005, 23 states have changed policies to reflect these considerations, often with wide bipartisan support. States such as Texas have made it easier for state boards or judges to place minors in juvenile detention, even if they are awaiting trial in adult court. States such as Illinois have given juvenile courts jurisdiction over offenders up to 18 years of age. And states such as Arizona have offered minors more recourse to challenge their diversion into adult court.

Federal policy deserves at least some credit for this trend. Activists have pointed out that these sorts of reforms will help states comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which is finally phasing in. The law obliges states to keep minors away from adults and to avoid inflicting the hell of solitary confinement on them. If states don’t comply, they could lose some federal funding.

It should not take that sort of federal stick, though, to encourage states to continue seeking the right balance between society’s need to punish crime and the importance of avoiding penalties that are overly harsh, ineffective or both.


National Juvenile Justice Network

1319 F Street, Suite 402

Washington, DC 20004


Barry Law School’s Youth Defense Institute is Awarded $150K Grant

barryContact: Paul Lefton 321-206-5722 [email protected]

Foundation supports Law School’s effort to stop prosecution of children in the adult criminal justice system.

Orlando, Fla. (Sept. 18, 2013) – The Public Welfare Foundation has awarded $150,000 to the Youth Defense Institute at the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law. The grant enables Barry Law to advance its community mission of protecting children’s rights.

The Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Program provides grants to promote systemic reforms aimed at ending the practice of trying, sentencing, and incarcerating youth as adults, and to promote equitable treatment of all young Americans. Because Florida prosecutes more children in the adult system than any other state, the Youth Defense Institute’s work falls squarely within the Foundation’s interests.

The Institute was created by Barry Law Dean Leticia M. Diaz and the Law School faculty. With support from the Florida Bar Foundation, its first activities included addressing Florida cases in which children were sentenced to life without parole. For the past three years, the Institute has served as the statewide clearinghouse and support system for strategic litigation exclusively on juvenile life sentences without parole. Based on the success of its collaborative work with attorneys throughout Florida, the Institute recently expanded its mission to the much large realm of strategic litigation aimed at any process where children are at risk of being charged as an adult.

“Our Youth Defense Institute has produced amazing result in just a few years’ time,” Diaz said. “This $150,000 grant is not only an endorsement of our mission, but also an important resource that will enable us to better target the Florida jurisdictions sending the most children to the adult criminal justice system.”

Ilona Vila, Director of the Institute at Barry Law, said the Public Welfare Foundation’s support “speaks volumes about the extraordinary work done by Florida attorneys dedicated to protecting children’s rights.”

“The United States Supreme Court has now handed down three cases with the message that children are different,” Vila said. “The Court has repeatedly identified the marked differences between children and adults in maturity, ability to appreciate consequences of their actions, culpability and the possibility for change and rehabilitation. Getting that message by reducing the unjust prosecution of children as adults through strategic litigation is what the Institute is all about.”

About Barry School of Law

Established in 1999, the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando offers a quality legal education in a caring, diverse environment. A Catholic-oriented institution with a current enrollment of more than 750 students, Barry Law School challenges students to accept intellectual, personal, ethical, spiritual, and social responsibilities, and commits itself to assuring an atmosphere of religious freedom. Barry University School of Law is fully accredited by the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar of the American Bar Association, 321 North Clark Street Chicago, IL 60654, (312) 988-6738.

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