Black and minority youths are overrepresented in the Alachua County juvenile justice system

By Asta Hemenway

Black youth arrested in Alachua County make up more than half the system.

Disproportionate Minority Contact is when racial and ethnic groups exceed the proportion in the juvenile justice system they represent in the overall population.

The demographic made up about 35% of juveniles arrested as first-time youth offenders statewide from 2019-20, but 61% of first-time youthful offenders arrested in Alachua County are Black, according to data from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

After a juvenile is arrested in Florida, prevention and diversion programs offer alternatives to keep children out of the juvenile system and away from the school-to-prison pipeline. Based on the young offender’s history, they can move on to probation or trial as an adult depending on the charge. However, an adult trial is rare unless the charge is first-degree murder.

More Black youth were arrested in Alachua County from 2019 to 2020 than in the state, even though first-time juvenile offender arrests have decreased since February, according to the DJJ.

Disproportionate Minority Contact and racial and ethnic disparity can contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline because Black youth are at risk of having negative contact with police because of socio-economic factors and systemic racism, which can lead to juvenile arrests.

DMC is when racial and ethnic groups exceed the proportion in the juvenile justice system they represent in the overall population.

This is prevalent throughout the U.S. and Alachua County, said John Alexander, Gainesville Police Department public affairs director and program director of the Reichert House, a community program for at-risk children.

Racial and ethnic disparity is defined by the DJJ as when minority youth receive unequal treatment when compared with other races.

From 2019-20, about 64% of first-time youth offenders in Alachua County were Black, according to data from the DJJ. Black youth made up more than a third of juvenile arrests in Alachua County just this year.

Black youth, who made up 21% of Florida’s juvenile population in 2018-19, made up about 58% of the inmates in secure detention facilities. Black youth also made up about 65% of juveniles transferred to adult court statewide.

Youthful offenders are offered prevention and diversion programs and probation to prevent a juvenile from reaching adult court, unless the charge is a first degree muder.

Graphic of a male youth in an orange jumper

Diversion and prevention: alternatives to arrest

Youth offenders are rarely sent to adult trial, said Brian Kramer, assistant state attorney and prosecutor for the State Attorney’s Office for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which includes Alachua County. Children are often referred to alternative paths, such as diversion and probation, which keeps juveniles away from trial, Kramer added.

From October 2019 to September, 61% of Black youths considered as first-time youth offenders in Florida were issued alternatives to arrests, compared to 42% in Alachua County, according to the DJJ.

The most common offenses were assault or battery, disorderly conduct, aggravated assault or battery and misdemeanor or felony drug cases from 2018-2019.

Alachua County Sheriff's Office assigns a school resource officer, who is a sworn-in officer, to each school to help address crimes, ACSO spokesperson Sgt. Frank Kinsey said.

"We treat all the juveniles equal, regardless of color,” Kinsey said.

However, Jhody Polk, an activist who founded and directs the Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub, a grass-roots organization offering the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, said she disagrees.

“We’re criminalized for existing,” said Polk, who is a Black woman who was formerly incarcerated at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala from 2007 to 2014 on charges of arson, grand theft auto, home invasion and robbery, burglary and larceny.

Polk added that she appreciates diversion programs keeping children from the juvenile justice system, but her experience in activism has taught her that there is no long-term support for children. If a child completes the diversion program, but finds themselves back in trouble, the court would be harder on them because they’ve been given a chance, she said.

“[The system is] very reactive to Black kids versus being proactive to Black kids,” she said.

ACSO also has the Youth and Community Resource Unit, a bureau designed to help youth by connecting them with social programs, he said. ACSO and GPD work with Teen Court, which allows children to be judged by peers their age for nonviolent crimes instead of juvenile court.

Teen Court aims to have juveniles take responsibility and learn from their actions, said Olivia Hollier, Teen Court director and ACSO Youth and Community Resource Unit operator. Children must admit to their offense voluntarily and apologize to their parents or guardian.

“We’re not trying to drag them down,” Hollier said. “We’re just like, ‘You know, life gets easier if you understand the weight of your actions and take responsibility.’”

There are two ways juveniles can come to Teen Court, she said. Youths who are already in the justice system can be referred to the court by a state attorney if the case is deemed appropriate for the program. Also, if a juvenile is issued a civil citation for their first offense, they can be referred. A citation will not appear on the child’s background if they finish the program, she said.

Common offenses include petty theft under $300, disorderly conduct, such as fighting, and minor drug possession charges, Hollier said.

Kinsey of ACSO said diversion programs are still an option even if a child commits a third offense or gets a civil citation. Two civil citations are usually the limit but don’t go on a child’s record if they are for minor crimes, like petty theft and minor drug possession, he said.

About 60% of children in Teen Court are minorities, Hollier said. All receive implicit bias training. If a child goes to juvenile court and is sentenced to community service, they could be sent back to serve as a jury member for Teen Court, she said.

“They kind of get the full wrap-around,” she said. “Sometimes it kind of takes seeing it from the other side for them to understand what they’re there for.”

Other diversion options include alternative schools or even mentoring programs, such as The Reichert House, according to the DJJ.

The Reichert House is run by GPD and offers supplemental educational assistance through certified teachers, Alexander said. This includes after school programming, therapy, training for employment opportunities and social and emotional learning.

Excessive exposure to risk factors like living in high-crime neighborhoods, poor academic performance, trauma and poor home infrastructure can predict the probability of youth committing crimes, Alexander said.

“If you go deeper into the psyche, you realize that there’s some trauma that’s occurred there that’s not being addressed,” he said.

The program also helps children who are court ordered to attend as part of probation requirements, he said. It offers engaging, interactive learning relevant to children such as feature news and broadcasting, culinary arts and robotics while allowing youth to shadow attorneys and be mentored by law enforcement, which increases positive exposure to police.

In September, GPD gave about half of its $220,000 budget increase to mental health co-responder positions and three more permanent Reichert House teacher positions. Alexander said he believes about 120 to 130 are enrolled in the program from a combination of about 30 schools in Alachua County. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, about 35 students remain on the program’s campus.

Chanae Jackson, a local Black Lives Matter Activist, said programs like Reichert House are great, but not all students who need those services can get in. The program has a waiting list, so not everyone is offered the public support it provides. About 40 to 55 students are on the programs waitlist at any given time, he said adding that some have been waiting for a year. High-risk children who have a host of factors for negative behavior may be placed higher on the waiting list.

“Those supports are not there until they already are in trouble or are part of the system,” Jackson said. “The system is only as good as what’s in place.”

Graphic of a female youth in an orange jumper

We’re criminalized for existing,

Jhody Polk, an activist who founded and directs the Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub.
Graphic of hands appearing behind prison cell bars

From 2019-20, 61% of first-time youthful offenders arrested in Alachua County are Black, according to data from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Probation: the next option after juvenile court

Typically with probation, there is no rehabilitation, Jackson said, adding that it’s the missing puzzle piece along with less restrictive options and opportunities.

Children who are on probation are under a restrictive environment, put a financial burden on parents for probation costs, can stress about adequate transportation to and from court or experience difficulty reporting to a probation officer, she said.

“You’re setting your child up for failure,” she said.

Depending on the severity of the crime and the child’s criminal history, probation is another alternative to a residential facility or a stricter option — a juvenile correctional facility or prison, Kinsey of ACSO said.

A child who has been detained by law enforcement will go through a screening via a local juvenile assessment center to evaluate their risk to the community, according to the DJJ. The child may then be released and referred to a diversion program. If they aren’t, they might wait for a court date at home or in a secure detention center based on levels of restrictiveness.

If a child is sent to juvenile court for a detention hearing, there are three options available, according to the DJJ. The state attorney might drop the case and the youth will be released or the court may find them guilty, which then places them on probation or in a detention center.

The officer monitors how the child is doing and helps them reach service providers like Teen Court and Reichert House. If the youth doesn’t obey the probation requirements, is charged with a major crime or has a criminal history, they might be sent to a residential facility.

Probation conditions can include no contact with the victim of a crime, an apology letter, community service hours, a curfew, revoking of the youth’s driver’s license and referrals to social service agencies, according to the DJJ.

Graphic of a male youth in an orange jumper

The last resort: trial as an adult

Every request to prosecute a youth as an adult is personally reviewed by the state attorney, Kramer of the state attorney’s office said. The office considers the severity of the crime, injury of the victim, victim’s family’s statements and the juvenile’s record.

“The effort to rehabilitate that is given to juveniles is, generally, progressive,” he said.

So far, there have been 32 juvenile cases in Alachua County involving an adult felony this year that the state attorney’s office deemed serious enough to be transferred to adult court, Kramer said. Of these cases, 30 charges have been for Black males while two have been for white males.

In the last five years, there have been 139 charges against Black youth, compared to 41 against whites, five against Hispanics and one against an Asian American. Four charges remain undefined by race.

Other factors may influence how many cases are sent to adult court.

If a juvenile has pending cases for juvenile court and gets a murder charge, all the pending cases are required to go with the child to adult court, he said.

However, Kramer said no children have been tried or sentenced as adults this year from ACSO arrests.

Even if the state attorney’s office sends a child to adult court, a judge has the power to decide whether the child belongs in juvenile court, he said. If the charge is for first-degree murder, the juvenile will be tried as an adult regardless.

The last time a child was tried as an adult in Alachua County was in 2017, he said. Michael Jon Moss, a Black male who was 17 during his 2015 arrest, was found guilty on charges of first-degree murder, possession of a firearm and throwing missiles into a building. Moss, now 22, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and 10 years of probation, which requires a mental health and substance abuse evaluation, according to court documents.

Lawyers are usually trained on how biases show up in the prosecution, Kramer said. If an attorney believes a youth won’t get probation, they need to make sure their belief doesn’t involve a youth’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or disability. He said he believes a prosecutor may need to consider whether implicit bias influenced sentence recommendation.

Youths are rarely tried as adults, former UF law professor Bob Dekle said. Dekle, who served as a state prosecutor during serial killer Ted Bundy’s Orlando trial, has prosecuted and defended children as young as 14.

Children are very sympathetic defendants, he said, adding that factor is a part of deciding whether they are charged as adults depending on the crime.

“When you get to a point of prosecuting a juvenile in adult court, you’ve exhausted every possible alternative in juvenile court,” he said.

To Dekle, prosecuting and defending juveniles involved in capital felonies is a daunting responsibility.

Kevin Scott, an organizer with Florida Prisoner Solidarity who served four years in prison, said the justice system is like pouring gas on a fire.

People he said he met in prison who were sentenced as youthful offenders are now shells of people, buried forever for an action committed as children.

The person who did the action at 18 or under, doesn’t exist anymore when they grow up, he said. They are so far removed from who they were, so it’s almost like the system is imprisoning someone who has nothing to do with those wrongdoings.

“It’s a failed experiment that we just keep running because we don’t know what else to do,” he said.

Contact Asta at Follow her on Twitter @astahemenway.

Graphic of hands with handcuffs around them