Color Bind 

Racial disparity on Orange County's juvenile justice system;;If you're a juvenile delinquent in Orange County, it pays to be white.;;If you're caught, you're less likely than a black kid to be imprisoned before trial, and if you're found guilty, you're less likely than your black brethren to be sent to a juvenile correctional institution. So different is the county's treatment of black and white child criminals that it is arguable that white kids are less likely to be caught in the first place.;;According to statistics compiled by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 63 percent of all children "committed" in Orange County for juvenile offenses are black, even though blacks account for just 22 percent of the county's population under 18. The county's incarceration rates for young black offenders are among the highest in the state. And while the department has been aware of the disparity-- which is a state-wide problem -- for eight years and has a program to ameliorate the disparity, Orange County is not among the seven Florida districts in the program.;;"The Legislature appropriated monies to be allocated to a number of districts," says Bob Pickerill, manager of the Department of Juvenile Justice's District 7, which includes Orange, Seminole, Brevard and Osceola counties. "We were just within percentage points of getting one of those allocations, but we did not.";;The $110,000 grant would have helped the region's public defenders, state's attorneys, judges, education officials and community groups devise and implement what the department calls "diversion" programs, to steer kids away from the juvenile justice system. These run the gamut from after-school recreational activities to special alternative sentencing arrangements that more closely match each offending child to the most appropriate punishment and rehabilitation. A pilot program in Tampa helped reduce countywide incarceration rates in Hillsborough by 7 percent last year, while cutting the system's percentage of black youth incarcerated from 58 to 55 percent.;;The $175,000 pilot program was part of a federally-funded, national effort to correct racial disparities throughout the juvenile and adult prison population. Juvenile incarceration rates are an important predictor of future criminality, and the statistics underscore one of society's most intractable problems: systematic racism.;;African Americans of all ages are more likely to be arrested than whites, more likely to be held without bail than whites once arrested, and more likely to be imprisoned (and then longer) than whites for comparable offenses. When white people stare in wonder at black St. Petersburg rioters, they do not recognize the constant, systemic insults that accrue to African Americans. Although high black incarceration rates have troubled judicial authorities for decades -- and although Orange County empaneled a task force to explore the problem more than a year ago -- there has been no significant public debate locally about the issue.;;Pickerill cautions against putting too much emphasis on the racial disparity data alone. "The problem -- and I use that word cautiously," he says, "[is] there isn't any doubt that, if it's disproportionate, something ought to be looked at. Someone could draw some serious conclusions from these graphs.";;Pickerill stresses the complex nature of juvenile crime, and the contributing factors of poverty, teen pregnancy, and school dropout rates and discipline levels. ;;All of these are indeed factors. But according to statistics compiled by the Florida Center for Children and Youth, Orange County's child poverty, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and school discipline cases are similar to those in the rest of the state. For example,18.7 percent of Florida youths under 18 lived in poverty last year, but just 16.2 percent of Orange County children did. Orange County's high- school graduation rate stood at 76.5 percent, the state's at 72.9 percent. In Orange County, 23 percent of all nonwhite babies were born to teen-age, unwed mothers, while statewide the percentage was 21.2 percent. About 9.7 percent of Orange County school children received an out-of-school suspension last year; in Florida as a whole, 9.1 percent of students received such punishment.;;In short, the more carefully one examines the socio-economic statistics, the more remarkable the county's black youth incarceration rate appears.;;There is no broad agreement on the reasons for the disparity, though many believe black children simply commit more, and more serious, crimes. "It's strictly crime-specific," says Randy Means, an assistant Orange-Osceola state's attorney and chairman of the governing board of juvenile justice for District 7. "The crimes committed by black minorities are putting them in categories that put them into detention or into the adult system. What people miss is, most of the crime committed by minorities is on other minorities. Our concern lies with the victim.";;But there is wide acknowledgment that the juvenile justice system treats blacks and whites differently, and treats blacks with increasing severity as they go through the system. Statewide, about 64,000 of the 105,000 children arrested last year were white. That 38 percent of the arrestees were black in a state where minorities number 23 percent of the youth population is cause for concern. But the figures become more skewed as the children move through the system. For instance, of the 20,772 children held in pretrial detention, 10,135 were black -- 49 percent. And among the 8,938 youths "committed for delinquency" this year, blacks numbered 4,427 -- 49 percent. ("Committed," in juvenile justice terms, can mean anything from a day program through boot camp or high security incarceration. Although juvenile authorities often stress that such commitments are therapeutic and reformatory in nature and thus not comparable to adult prison, the term always refers to stronger sanctions than "community control" -- the fate of the vast majority of offenders -- which typically means a community service bid and an admonition to attend school.) Black youths transferred to adult court -- with the expectation of harsher sentencing -- consistently outnumber whites as well. This year, 54 percent of such referrals in Florida were of black youths. In Orange County, the ratio was 73 percent.;;"District 7 is a very conservative area," Means says. "Someone committing a crime like armed robbery here will do more time than they would in Dade, which is very liberal. [But] we're not as conservative as the Panhandle." ;;Yet we're very close. Orange County's treatment of young African-American offenders is more harsh than the state's in every category.;;In and around Orlando, 44 percent of youthful arrestees are black -- double the number of black youths in the general population. At the Orlando Regional Juvenile Detention Center, where guards last year arranged for older, bigger kids to beat smaller kids, 53 percent of the detainees are black. And of the 733 youths "committed for delinquency" from Orange County last year, 461 -- 63 percent -- are black. That's nearly three times the ratio of blacks in the county's under-18 population.;;Orange County's black incarceration ratio is only slightly less than Broward County's 65 percent, and it is worse than Palm Beach's 61 percent. With 6,706 youths referred for delinquency in the 1995-96 fiscal year, Orange County also processes more children than Palm Beach and nearly as many as Broward; it imprisons more than both of them. Yet both Broward and Palm Beach received grants this year to ameliorate racial disparities, while Orange County did not.;;That's because Palm Beach and Broward each comprise their own district, while Orange County's numbers were hidden within District 7. Seminole, Osceola and Brevard diluted the district's black incarceration rate to 52 percent.;;"Believe it or not, that district is the next district on the list [to receive funding]," says Allison Haigler, a senior management analyst with the Department of Juvenile Justice in Tallahassee. But that doesn't mean the district will get funding next year; there is no guarantee the available funds will increase. "We would like to be able to fund all the districts," Haigler says.;;Walter Hawkins, a special assistant to Mayor Glenda Hood and chairman of the Orange County Juvenile Justice Council, which produced a report on racial disparity in the Orange County juvenile justice system this year, says when the time came to try to obtain the grants, other districts were more aggressive than this one. ;;The detention center task force released its study last spring and got little attention from local media or anyone else, Hawkins says. Its recommendations mostly have not yet been implemented. Among them:;;• Initiate a "fast tracking" system to get certain misdemeanor offenders out of the court system at the outset (Broward and Dade have such a system already).;;• Create a mentoring program for youth in need of surrogate guardianship.;;• Allow more discretion in the "scoring" method authorities use to decide whether a youth must be detained before trial.;;• Intensify multicultural sensitivity training for juvenile assessment center staff.;;The lack of discussion and public debate about these proposals -- and the issues underlying them -- have frustrated Hawkins. "We're real careful in this county to try to make it appear things aren't as bad as they are," he says. "We're making some strides towards looking at the problem, but I don't think we've made it a high enough priority.";;The fast track program arguably does the most, and most quickly, to get kids away from the judicial system. It is implemented at the law enforcement level and boils down to cutting kids some slack. Means is clear that he won't do it. "The tolerance level is reflected first in the community by the complaints they make, second in the enforcement of the laws," he says. "We must treat defendants equally," even if it means black kids and poor kids end up spending more time in jail than richer white kids.;;"A kid gets picked up for petty theft, and no priors, they ought to issue him a citation and not introduce him to this system," says Tony Holt, an assistant superintendent at the Orlando Regional Juvenile Detention Center.;;Holt is no woolly-headed liberal with a Ph.D. A 10-year employee at the detention center, he got his education from street life and the U.S. Marine Corps. In his job at the detention center he ranges from drill sergeant to counselor, and he's done his best, over the years, to scare the hell out of kids.;;"Most kids aren't frightened anymore," Holt says. "If a kid has no respect for authority, nothing you do to him is going to penetrate." Instead of punitive treatment, Holt tries to reason with them. "I treat them like human beings," he says, "and I can capture any of them, because I say, ‘Let's problem-solve.'" He says he sees some of the tough kids improve their behavior, but then they go back to the streets, or into dysfunctional homes, or into a school system where they are "marked" as trouble-makers. These outside factors do more to bring kids back into detention than is generally acknowledged, he says.;;Holt steps into the center's "honor dorm," the cells for boys who have demonstrated good behavior for at least seven days. A group of about two dozen files past, under guard. Holt greets each one and shakes their hands like a politician. He says to one muscular black youth, "sorry to see you here again.";;Three are left inside, one talking on the phone, the others slouched in plastic chairs designed so they cannot be used as weapons. Holt turns to one: "Is anyone bothering you," he asks. "If anyone bothers you, you tell me, all right?" ;;Sidebar: Tough luck;;While Orange County authorities incarcerate more young black men than any other county in the state except Duval, and transfer more black men to adult court than any other, such get-tough policies don't work.;;According to a study by University of Central Florida criminologist Donna Bishop, juveniles tried as adults in Florida committed new and sometimes more serious crimes at a higher rate than those whose cases were handled in the juvenile system. Her findings were published in the April 1996 issue of the journal Crime & Delinquency. ;The county's policy is to allow non-serious offenders "one bite of the apple," says Assistant State's Attorney Randy Means -- one shot at an alternative program outside the juvenile justice system. On the other end of the spectrum, Means and other juvenile justice authorities speak of "super-predators," a trendy term coined a few years ago by social scientist and Princeton professor John DiIulio to describe young, violent offenders who allegedly comprise a demographic bubble and threaten the fabric of society. "Seventy to 80 percent of youths inside secure facilities were already detained on a violent crime before," Means says. "This population bubble of 9-[to]-12-year-olds -- if we don't get a handle on it, we're going to be talking ... five years from now [about] a crime wave like we have never seen before.";;Although many dismiss the super-predator line, and Attorney General Janet Reno recently spoke out against scare mongering while citing a drop in violent crime by very young offenders, the theory has helped drive an unprecedented buildup of juvenile prison facilities in Florida. That buildup has cost more than $200 million and doubled the number of juvenile prison beds to more than 6,000. Incarceration programs account for more than 60 percent of the state juvenile justice department's $400 million budget, while prevention and intervention programs comprise about 32 percent of the money spent.;;"The Department of Juvenile Justice plan is to prevent crime up front," says Means. "We have the Philistines at the door; we have to do something.";;Such prevention is exactly the goal of the statewide Minority Overrepresentation Project, a state-funded effort for which Orange County certainly would qualify if its true juvenile arrest and detention numbers were broken out [see main article]. Yet, while the county does have programs with similar goals, the system's duel imperatives -- to protect the public while preventing future delinquency -- seem to be at odds.

More by Ericson, Edward Jr.


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