Beatrice Brown remembers defending an 8-year-old boy in court many years ago for a minor offense. Police officers brought him out in shackles and a large jumpsuit that piled around his legs. The boy was so small he barely reached her chest.
“I had so many similar cases, I don’t know what ended up happening to him,” the local attorney and member of the Florida Bar Juvenile Court Rules Committee says. “It’s sad. There’s got to be a better way.”
Brown joined Orange-Osceola Public Defender Robert Wesley and others Wednesday at Florida A&M University College of Law to call for a change in the way local children are arrested for minor offenses. The Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange And Osceola counties and is the third most populous circuit, leads the state in the arrest of children ages 5 to 10 and the overall number of arrests of juveniles.
A few statistics from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice:
- From 2013-2014, officials arrested 8,162 juveniles in the Ninth Circuit, beating out the more populated 11th Circuit (Miami-Dade County) and the 17th Circuit (Broward County). Since 2009-2010, the Ninth Circuit has had the highest number of juveniles arrested in the state.
- The Ninth Circuit has also led the state since 2009-2010 in the number of arrests of children ages 5 to 10. Data shows 107 children were arrested last year compared with 10 arrested in the 11th Circuit and 22 arrested in the 17th Circuit. The only circuit that came relatively close to the Orange-Osceola was the 10th Circuit (Hardee, Highlands and Polk counties) with 80 children arrested.
- Black children represent 55 percent of arrests in Orange County, despite being only 25 percent of the youth population. In Osceola, black children represent 23 percent of arrests, but were 12 percent of the youth population.
Wesley called on local police officers to rely on different remedies, like a civil citation or diversion program, for misdemeanor offenses instead of encouraging what some call the school-to-prison pipeline. He says the civil citation initiative, which would save taxpayers money, is not being used effectively in Orange and Osceola counties.
From July 2014 to June 2015, 43 percent of all juvenile misdemeanors in the state resulted in a civil citation being issued. Out of 2,022 children eligible for a civil citation in the Ninth Circuit, only 351 children (17 percent) received one. The remaining 1,671 kids were arrested.
The numbers vary slightly between black and white children. More white juveniles (18 percent) were given civil citation in the Ninth Circuit than black juveniles (14 percent).
“We are hoping for a mind change in our community for a better understanding that a criminal arrest is traumatic to children,” he says. “There’s a mistaken understanding that an arrest will make the child better. If you tell a child they’re a criminal, they’ll believe you.”
Professor LeRoy Pernell, a former dean of the college, said the majority of kids arrested are black children for minor offenses, like fistfights, dress code violations, talking back and insubordinate conduct.
“Many of these issues are the same problems slaves were punished for,” he says. “This is the new Jim Crow for our children. ... No one is condoning misbehavior or wrongdoing, but these numbers do point out that there is a serious need to take ownership.”