Juvenile justice? Or injustice?

Last month Orange-Osceola Assistant State Attorney Randy Means was asked to explain why 63 percent of the children incarcerated in Orange County were African-American. "It's strictly crime-specific," he replied. "The crimes committed by black minorities are putting them in the categories that put them into detention or into the adult system."

Congressman Bill McCollum has introduced new legislation to toughen sanctions against juvenile offenders -- those age 17 and younger -- intended to send more of them into the adult court system and, if possible, to adult prisons, to make them "accountable" at last for their crimes.

The bill and its tough attitude play well with people bombarded nightly by crime news.

But while the number of children thrown into the adult prison here has been rising, the serious crime rate is flat, even falling in some of the most serious categories. And while Orange County continues to transfer black boys to adult court, proportionally fewer of them are committing the felonies it often takes to get there.

Figures compiled by the State Department of Juvenile Justice tell a contradictory story. Last year Florida transferred 5,242 youths from the juvenile system into adult court, up from 4, 307 in the 1991-92 budget year. About a third of these were felony cases. Also in 1991, 48 percent of the felony offenders transferred to adult court were black males. Last year the number of felony arrests was up, but the percentage of those who were young black men had decreased, to less than 41 percent of the total. The ratio of those young black males transferred to adult court had fallen also, to 57.6 percent.

In Orange County the trend in arrests was similar. Of 678 young offenders arrested for felonies here in the 1991-92 budget year, 331, or 48.8 percent, were black males. By last year felony arrests numbered 749, just 321 of which -- 42.9 percent -- were black males. The county trend mirrors that of the state.

But unlike the state as a whole, Orange County's ratio of black boys charged as adult felons is increasing.

In 1991-92 , 73 of the 105 felony cases tried in adult court were black boys -- 69.5 percent. That was very close to the state average at the time. But by last year, 72 of the 98 felony cases transferred to the adult system in the county were black boys. That's 73.5 percent, a slight increase over four years ago, but a much larger percentage than the state as a whole's 57.6 percent.

The numbers, in other words, suggest that the comparatively tougher treatment of young black males by Orange County is not at all "crime specific," as Means suggests.

Why is this?

A child offender's previous criminal history is perhaps more important in determining a transfer to adult court than a particular crime. Means explains. Basically, if a kid screws up in the juvenile system, and committed a serious or violent offense while, say, under community control, then he is a prime candidate to be moved into the adult system.

Means says it's hard to draw conclusions from the statistics on felonies, because they don't break down to specific crimes. Asked about the specific crime rates among the races, Means says, "we don't keep track of race by crime. We don't on purpose."

While neither the county or the state could provide a specific breakdown of, say, the number of armed robberies or attempted murders committed by white kids versus black, the state does keep records on overall serious crimes. And the rates of most serious crimes have been flat or falling.

There were 153 juveniles arrested for murder in Florida in 1991-92; of that number, 126 were transferred to the adult system. Last year there were 104 murder arrests, 91 of whom were sent to adult courts. Attempted murders numbered 251 in 1991, 197 last year. Armed robberies are down 30 percent. But the number of those cases sent to the adult system is up.

What kinds of felony crimes are increasing?

Arrests for drugs other than marijuana are up 60 percent in the past four years, while marijuana busts are up 260 percent, both statewide. In Orange County, there were no felony pot arrests of minors transferred to adult court in 1991-92; last year there were three such cases. The other crimes increasingly used to send a kid into the adult system are classified as "other" -- with four such transfers in 1991-92, and 15 last year -- and "escapes." Two escapes were recorded in the adult system here four years ago; 20 last year.

A group of hardcore juvenile offenders held at the 33rd Street jail say they know why escapes are increasing. "It's because if you get out on probation, they violate you," said one of the boys. "you know they're going to find a way to bring you back here." The rest nod in agreement.

Means has a different explanation, just as compelling. "We broadened [the definition of] 'escape' a few years ago," he says, " and the Department of Juvenile Justice has a different philosophy than HRS [Health and Rehabilitative Services, the system's former overseers]. They're going to charge escape when it's possible. And they didn't always do so at HRS."

Locking kids up is about "public safety," Means says, and that has increasing been done through the juvenile system. Last year the Department of Juvenile Justice instituted a new "Level 10" sanction -- a sort of maximum-security kiddie prison where the stay ranges from 18 to 36 months. He and Orange-Osceola Attorney Lawson Lamar toured it "to see that it really was a sanction, that it would protect the community," Means says. "We found it was underused last year."

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