As Miami-Dade County state attorney, I have many responsibilities, not the least of which is to protect and defend our community from people who pose a great threat of harm to the public. I have long been an advocate for innovative, proactive programs and interventions for at-risk youth. The earlier the intervention, the better the outcome for the youth and the community.
▪ I created a Truancy Intervention Program (TIP) in 1996. By using prosecutors and school authorities as partners in the effort to keep children in school and develop consistent school attendance, we helped prevent a slide toward juvenile crime that truancy predicts. Years later, regrettably, the program was defunded by the Legislature.
▪ The civil-citation program was our creation. Currently, about 1,500 youth get a civil citation instead of being arrested, avoiding a juvenile record.
We send juveniles to SAGE (State Attorney Growth and Enrichment), a faith-based diversion program. Each youth is mentored, counseled and supervised at a house of worship in the neighborhood where he or she lives. Charges are dismissed by successful completion of the program.
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▪ I also launched the S.T.A.R.T. Program (Stop, Think, Ask, React, Tell). It is being presented to thousands of eighth-graders in the public-school system every year. The concept is to empower children by providing tools they can use to help make mature decisions and avoid becoming involved in the criminal system. I am pleased by the program’s success.
▪ We created the Juvenile Domestic Violence Diversion Program. Instead of prosecuting youth for incidents of violence against family members, the youth and family participate in counseling.
Our office rarely, if ever, sends juveniles to adult court on nonviolent third-degree felonies, which make up the bulk of the cases that remain in our juvenile courts. The majority of juvenile cases sent to adult court are murders, manslaughters, armed robberies, robberies and sexual assaults. Last year, of the 4,921 youth arrested, 98 percent of them remained in juvenile court.
That said, legislation that limits our ability to leverage the adult court system for some of the most complex and violent juvenile offenders is short sighted. It is a simplistic view that takes a one-dimensional look at one of the most difficult issues surrounding the devastating effects of crimes committed by some of the most prolific and violent juvenile offenders.
In February, a 14-year-old boy was intentionally shot in the face by a pair of teenagers, 15 and 16. This crime occurred on a Sunday, outside of a church, at midday. The cases are being reviewed for possible transfer to adult court, in reality the only meaningful option given their age and the brutality of the near-fatal attack. In violent cases like this, this strategy will protect other youth from being victimized by such heinous assaults.
The juvenile-justice system is woefully inadequate in providing sustained interventions for the most difficult and dangerous juveniles. It is equally inadequate at keeping our community safe.
The misinformation that I most often hear is that the Legislature has removed judicial decision-making relating to transferring juveniles to adult court. In fact, the Legislature shifted the judicial discretion from the juvenile jurisdiction to the adult jurisdiction, where there is more time to monitor these youth. Additionally, judges in the adult court system have the power, and often use that power, to sentence juvenile offenders to specific juvenile sanctions and programs while still allowing the court the much needed time for supervision.
Legislation that limits our ability to address dangerous juvenile offenders could result in a situation where prosecutors’ hands are tied as we try to intervene while keeping our community safe.
State lawmakers should address the legal inability to hold dangerous juvenile offenders in a juvenile facility for more than 21 days. This gaping hole in our community’s safety net is addressed in adult court through our pretrial detention and bond process. Juvenile court lacks such protections.
I also have been a longtime advocate for blended sentences. Allowing circuit court judges to impose both juvenile and adult court sanctions could bring more needed resources to this complicated population, yet also deal directly with the safety factor that is not addressed in current proposals.
Collectively, youth do not belong in adult jails. Actually, anyone under 22 is legally prohibited from being placed in adult prison. The conversation should be taking a much wider and holistic approach rather than relying on catch phrases such as, “Children don’t belong in jail,” devoid of true data.
I urge the Legislature really look at these difficult issues from all sides, not just one.
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is the Miami-Dade County state attorney.