Orange County has the highest number of juvenile arrests in Florida, and black boys make up the majority of those arrests for crimes charged as felonies. A five-part series documents how poor, black children are thrown away in a system that is a legacy of our history of racial injustice.
Data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) show that juvenile arrests statewide are at a 40-year low, but Orange County has had the highest number of juvenile arrests for the past three years. From June 2015 to June 2016, police arrested more young people in Orange County than Miami-Dade County, where the population is nearly double. The majority of those arrests were for crimes charged as felonies, and 64 percent of juvenile arrests were of black boys between 12 and 16 years old.
90.7 WFME reporter Renata Sago used the stories of three black teenagers who were charged with felonies as children to report on Orange County's outsized juvenile arrest rate. She observed:
It is impossible to talk about juvenile justice in central Florida—let alone the United States—without talking about race. Numbers show young black men in Orange County are arrested at higher rates. That is a trend that sociologists and civil rights advocates say dates back to the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras when laws were created to either deny blacks of certain rights or make it easy for them to be stripped of them.
Florida is one of the 14 states that allow for direct file, which gives prosecutors the power to file charges against a juvenile directly in adult criminal court, sending kids to adult court without a juvenile hearing or input from a judge. Florida’s direct file rate has been disproportionately high compared to other states, according to federal data, Sago reports. A study examining data from 2008 to 2013 found that black boys in Florida were disproportionately sent to prison for first or second time offenses. DJJ data show that 62 percent of kids sent to adult court in 2016 were black.
The disproportionate arrests of black boys can be traced to the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that is a legacy of slavery in America. Leroy Pernell, professor of law at Florida A&M University and a former public defender, told Sago that the practice of direct filing black boys stems from an inability or unwillingness to perceive children or young black males as "anything other than a crime threat."
And like Reconstruction-era laws designed to disenfranchise black citizens, Pernell notes, Florida law permanently deprives black youth who are direct filed and sent to adult prison of their right to vote. Nearly 1.5 million people who have fully completed their sentences are barred from voting in Florida, and 21 percent of African Americans in Florida have been disenfranchised.
Sago explains that Orange County's juvenile arrest rate is driven by the fact that more kids are being arrested multiple times. All of Florida's 50 residential commitment centers are operated by private companies, many of which are security companies not designed to offer rehabilitative care that emphasizes therapy and education.
Katherine Puzone, associate professor of law at Barry University and head of the school's juvenile defense clinic, told Sago that "the kids aren't getting any real help" in a system that threats them as throwaways. "One of these kids we're throwing away maybe could cure cancer, or they could be the teacher makes a difference in a child's life."
As Sago concludes, the juvenile justice system "is where kids ends up when society has failed them."
EJI is working to end abusive treatment of children in the criminal justice system. When EJI argued in the United States Supreme Court that death-in-prison sentences imposed on children are unconstitutional, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg expressed concern about condemning a child to prison with no hope for release: "I mean, essentially, you’re making a 14-year-old a throwaway person." The Court has now banned death-in-prison sentences for children convicted of non-homicide crimes and mandatory death-in-prison sentences for all children because of "children's diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change."