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New Report To Examine Local Juvenile Justice System

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Are juvenile offenders in North Florida's Fourth Circuit Court treated the same as those in other parts of the state?That's the question Florida Times-Union reporter Topher Sanders is examining in an article slated for publication in tomorrow's paper. Melissa Ross spoke to Sanders on Thursday for a preview of the piece.

The report will focus on the local use of "direct commitments" in juvenile justice cases.

Direct commitment is a type of plea bargain in which juvenile accusers are given a choice to either accept time in a juvenile facility or be charged as an adult. Jacksonville leads the state in this practice by wide margins.

“Fifteen-hundred young people in the last five years, and of those about 800 of them, is what the (public defender) will estimate, face a threat of criminal charges before accepting a plea,” Sanders said.

Over that same period in Miami-Dade County there were 34 direct commitments.

Duval County Public Defenders are concerned that juveniles are being threatened by adult charges, compelling them to accept commitment deals.

Sanders says that the State Attorney’s office tends to be concerned with victims’ rights and public safety.

Direct commitment excludes the involvement of the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). According to Sanders, the DJJ is known to conduct detailed evaluations and studies of what caused children to act criminally and determine treatment needs.

“They’re not given the opportunity to make a recommendation to the court on to what should happen to the young person,” said Sanders.

State Attorney Angela Corey maintains a diversion program in Jacksonville. Mayor Alvin Brown also speaks of pouring resources into the Neighborhood Accountability Council, as well as early intervention programs where first time offenders can face alternatives to arrest but still face consequences.

Sanders says there is also a fear that juvenile facilities could have detrimental effects on those who don’t belong in the program. Many children are influenced by juveniles with bigger issues, and leave with more problems than when they entered.

“Whatever things that rubbed off on them, bad habits, they bring that back to our community,” said Sanders.

Sanders said it is 12 times more expensive to put a child in a facility than on probation.

You can follow Melissa Ross on Twitter @MelissainJax.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.
WJCT News Intern Scott Harrison is a Journalism Major at Flagler College. He also reports for the college's campus news website, The Gargoyle.