Girls Court aims to support young women with services, not sentences
By Meredith Rutland Wed, Sep 17, 2014 @ 3:27 pm | updated Thu, Sep 18, 2014 @ 6:36 am
A 17-year-old runaway stood in front of a judge Wednesday morning, waiting to hear what he’d decide. She’d been through the juvenile justice system before and knew what to expect from probation.
This time, though, she got more than she expected. She received a support system.
Three girls went through Jacksonville’s first Girls Court on Wednesday morning, a new initiative that focuses on providing counseling and support services for girls in the juvenile justice system. The special court hears cases where the defendant is a girl with a prior criminal history and is a runaway, pregnant, parenting, a victim of human trafficking or has been sexually abused, said Judge David Gooding, who oversees the new Girls Court.
The girls received counseling and mentors in addition to probation, and one teenager will take parenting classes to learn how to better care for her 10-month-old daughter.
“It makes me feel good to have so much support,” said the young mother, who stood crying next to a public defender and a prosecutor from the State Attorney’s Office.
“We want to see you be the best mother you can be. That’s it,” Gooding told the girl. “We want to see you succeed.”
The court is the second in Florida and one of seven in the nation, Gooding said. The other in Florida is in Pinellas County.
The program is meant to get the girls out of the criminal justice system.
Rather than focusing on their actions — running away, for example — the court is set up to address what problems in the girl’s life caused her to want to run away. Once those problems are addressed, she can change her life, said Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, which provides some of the services the girls receive.
“It’s really to start breaking the cycle,” she said.
That cycle is entrenched in the area. The Jacksonville circuit area has incarcerated more girls — 112 — in the past two years than any other circuit in the state.
In addition, Gooding said, girls in this situation may continue to commit crimes.
Sometimes, he said, they end up in court on child abuse charges, or their children end up in foster care.
That needs to change, the judge said.
“If we can help the girls turn now instead of getting deeper into the system,” he said, “perhaps they won’t be mothers in the child welfare system in a year.”
The new court doesn’t come with extra money. The biggest costs are the additional services provided by the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center and Family Support Services, he said.
Defendants can be recommended for Girls Court by their probation officers, and the decision to go to Girls Court instead of through the regular juvenile courts is their choice.
Once a girl is selected for Girls Court, she meets with the prosecutor, a public defender or another attorney and the members of various organizations that provide support services.
“The main difference between other courtrooms and this courtroom is we have more information,” said Brooke Brady, assistant state attorney for the Jacksonville-area State Attorney’s Office.
In regular juvenile court, there isn’t always time to talk with each defendant about what’s going on in their lives and what resources they need to make a change. With this court, Brady said, officials get a chance to talk with each girl about schoolwork, their home life and their hobbies.
“The hope is its going to give them the tools necessary to help them succeed in life,” she said.
Meredith Rutland: (904) 359-4161