By Topher Sanders Wed, Oct 23, 2013 @ 2:41 am | updated Wed, Oct 23, 2013 @ 6:33 am
Duval and surrounding counties lead the state in the number of juvenile girls incarcerated, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
That jolting statistic is part of a paper on data trends on girls and the justice system released today by the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center.
The paper’s release coincides with a forum Wednesday to discuss what can be changed to decrease the number of incarcerated girls. Wednesday’s forum will feature presentations by attorney and former president of the American Bar Association Martha Walters Barnett and pollster Bruce Barcelo.
The event is sponsored by the policy center, which focuses on the needs of girls, the statewide group Voices for Florida Girls and The Children’s Campaign.
The Northeast Florida circuit did not lead the state in girls’ incarceration in the 2009-10 or 2010-11, but 60 girls were incarcerated in the 4th Circuit’s Duval, Clay and Nassau counties in 2011-12, topping the state. That’s more than in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Broward combined.
Two key elements highlighted in the paper are the need for improved mental health systems for girls and the need for more probation officers and training for those officers.
“What appears to be happening, because of the lack of mental health facilities in this community the judges are using commitment as a way to get mental health services to address the high needs of girls,” said Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center. “We need to think about that very differently.”
Ravoira said she arrives at that conclusion based on her three decades of experience studying juvenile justice, conversations with local judges and witnessing local juvenile trials.
Vanessa Patino Lydia, the policy center’s director of research and planning, points to higher percentages of First Coast area girls than across the state reporting physical abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing violence, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts as clear indications of the region’s need for improved mental health care.
Many girls, Lydia said, are also not receiving mental health assessments before they are incarcerated. That could change if girls on probation received more one-on-one attention from probation officers.
Violating probation is the No. 1 reason girls in Florida are incarcerated, according to the paper and state figures.
Ravoira said the state and community need to reallocate and increase funding for more probation officers to work with juveniles. Right now probation officers in the Jacksonville area are working with about 90 cases each, she said.
“It’s an unrealistic case load,” Ravoira said. “So we end up putting girls in these costly residential programs for violation of probation.”
The smaller caseloads would allow probation officers to spend more time with each case and make better referrals for each juvenile’s needs, she said.
The American Probation and Parole Association recommends the ratio be 15 cases to 1 probation officer for intense cases and 30 to 1 for moderate to high risk cases.
Voters are sensible when it comes to the choice of paying for interventions for juveniles or having less personal taxes, said Barcelo, who conducted a statewide poll on the matter in June.
When voters were asked which they would pick, better programing for girls who are in the juvenile justice system or less personal taxes, 70 percent choose better programming.
“Florida voters have told us over the past 12 years that they prefer prevention and intervention rather than dealing with a young person who has become a hardened criminal,” Barcelo said.
The life story of Biannela Susana, mother of Christian Fernandez, will also be featured during the three-hour forum on Wednesday. Susana’s experience will frame a discussion on system failures and lack of intervention for young girls, Ravoira said.
Ravoira points to an incident when Susana was 7-years-old and was left at school and had to be taken home by police.
“There’s an opportunity there for intervention” she said. “A kid who’s not picked up at school, who doesn’t speak English and whose mother is moving from hotel to motel to the point that the child doesn’t even know her address.”
Susana was raped at 11, gave birth at 12 and dropped out of school in the fifth grade, Ravoira said.
The community risks failing other vulnerable girls like Susana if adults don’t improve the system, she said.
Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169