Juvenile Justice committee calls for children’s services tax to support diversion changes

Jacksonville, FL — Major changes could be coming to how our area handles youth in the juvenile justice system, but getting that done in a lasting and sustainable way will require new funding, according to a special committee that has been studying the matter for nearly two years.

They’re recommending a tax to achieve that funding, and while the changes outlined in this report are largely being embraced, it’s not clear if that funding solution will be.

Background

The Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee was established in 2017 by Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson. Their task- improving the Circuit’s juvenile diversion programming. The JJAC has now issued their final report, with some big recommendations, focusing on diversion programming, but stepping beyond as well.

“Our collective approach should be measured not by how many young people we prosecute and incarcerate, but by how many young people we help move out of the justice system to become productive and law-abiding members of the community,” the JJAC Final Report says.

This new perspective is aimed at reflecting that children, cognitively, are not fully developed in terms of impulse control and decision making, but pleasure-seeking is largely matured. That means they are more susceptible to peer pressure and impulsive action, without acknowledging the long-term consequences. JJAC says traditional justice routes also don’t often account for trauma, substance abuse, or mental health problems that a juvenile may be dealing with.

JJAC says research they examined shows involvement in the juvenile justice system alone leads to negative outcomes and can increase the risk of re-offending, whereas positive intervention can foster growth.

Who is in diversion

The Fourth Circuit- which covers Duval, Clay, and Nassau counties- has expanded its use of civil citations. When an officer encounters a juvenile, this is an option in lieu of an arrest for most misdemeanors and municipal ordinance violations, with some conditions, like no open citations or prior felony adjudications. Civil citation cases are handled in Teen Court, which connects the juvenile with resources, while also requiring they take responsibility and complete conditions like community service and writing apology letters.

If a youth offender is arrested instead, they are booked and the case is referred to the State Attorney’s Office. If certain conditions are met- including that the juvenile have no more than one prior non-violent misdemeanor adjudication- the State Attorney’s Office can opt for a diversion program. There are a few different ways diversion can play out, including potentially involving a jail tour, community service, essays, and coursework.

The State Attorney’s Office may instead pursue a formal petition, which then leads to a “delinquent” adjudication and penalty of either probation or commitment, with both residential and non-residential commitment options.

Recommendations for change

The biggest change in the system that JJAC wants to see is removing diversion programming from the State Attorney’s Office, and putting it under the city’s Kids Hope Alliance instead. The Report says KHA is already responsible for coordinating children’s programming, identifies juvenile justice as a service program category, and has the mechanisms in place to track vendor performance and do quality control. The added benefit is that it’s not directly in the justice system.

“Diversion- as a discreet step in the juvenile justice continuum- is designed to address youthful misbehavior and keep young people out of the formal justice system and away from the SAO. Therefore, diversion programming should be administered by community-based entities rather than the prosecuting entity,” the Report says.

Hand-in-hand with this, when the SAO determines diversion is appropriate, JJAC recommends the case then be referred to a case management provider contracted through KHA. That would allow the SAO to completely separate from the case until completion, which again means less interaction between the juvenile and the justice system.

In order for the case managers to best cater to the individual youth their serving, the JJAC says caseload size needs to be limited. They are also recommending a continuum of programming be made available, to address those individual needs. The Report says this continuum could include mentoring, career planning, or other areas.

Another recommendation is allowing for every chance for the youth to successfully complete diversion, including having the case manager reassess where things stand and if the youth is on the appropriate path, if they are struggling with the plan. That could ultimately lead to intervention by the State Attorney’s Office, but the JJAC says the focus should remain on trying to get to the underlying cause of the problems the juvenile is having.

Hand-in-hand with these diversion recommendations, the JJAC wants to stop “scared straight” jail tours, which the Committee says serve to increase the likelihood of arrest in youth, not decrease. They also want to eliminate judicial hearings currently needed in order to place a youth in diversion, as another way to limit that juvenile-justice system interaction. Additionally, JJAC wants post-completion services to be available for youth or families who seek it.

They also issued several non-diversion related recommendations, including moving juvenile booking out of the Duval County Jail, exploring a Young Adult Court, and moving away from a youth prison model.

Funding

Having already identified how important it is that youth in this process get individualized care, the JJAC says funding is needed to support that mission.

“Sufficient funding will be critical to keep case manager caseloads small enough that youth and families receive the individualized attention they deserve and need to be successful,” the Report says.

JJAC says they believe securing long-term funding is as important as implementing their recommendations.

“Critical to the success of these efforts will be the availability of sufficient and sustainable funding,” the Report says.

The leading option, according to the JJAC, is a dedicated tax. They point to Miami-Dade and other Florida jurisdictions as having a children’s services tax or similar measure, which provides sustainable funding. WOKV asked Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry whether he would support such a tax and, if not, what kind of long-term funding option he would consider. A City Spokesperson declined to directly answer at this point, saying instead that safety and children are top priorities of the Administration.

In the short term, the City is confirming that they intend to direct additional funding to the Kids Hope Alliance in this upcoming budget proposal, to support moving diversion programming under them. They do not have an exact figure for what that budget boost will look like yet, but State Attorney Melissa Nelson says the City has told her $500,000 is being committed to KHA for juvenile diversion programming, as part of the City budget proposal coming out next month.

The JJAC says other short-term funding lines should also be considered, including government grants and philanthropic donors. They added that there could in fact be some cost savings under this transition as well, by eliminating any overlaps in how programming is currently managed.

With a successful outcome, the JJAC says there will be improved public safety, which could then create some cost savings for the community. It would also theoretically mean fewer juveniles being detained, which can be a substantial cost.

Next steps

The Report calls for establishing an “Independent Diversion Transition Workgroup”, in order to implement the SAO to KHA shift. It notes KHA will need funding above and beyond the services they currently provide, as they look to take on these new responsibilities. The Workgroup will put together information on what that anticipated budget would look like.

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