Lack of alternatives to incarceration and ‘get tough’ culture contribute to girl jail rates in First Coast
By Topher Sanders Wed, Oct 23, 2013 @ 10:35 pm | updated Thu, Oct 24, 2013 @ 5:03 am
The Jacksonville area consistently incarcerates more juvenile girls than other large cities in Florida because of a lack of diversion efforts and a “get tough” culture and attitude toward juveniles, said leaders of a policy group focused on girls’ needs.
The comments were made after an event focused on the incarceration of juvenile girls. Nearly 100 people attended Wednesday’s forum, which featured presentations from child advocates, a panel discussion and a reflection of the life experience of Biannela Susana, mother of Cristian Fernandez.
Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, told the crowd that Susana would be taking her college placement test and will begin working for the Weaver policy center full time in November.
Those in attendance applauded the news.
The event was sponsored by the Weaver policy center, which focuses on girls, a statewide group called Voices for Florida Girls and The Children’s Campaign.
Weaver was in attendance and said the event was “wonderful.”
“It told us a lot about what is going on but just as importantly what more we have to do,” Weaver said.
Northeast Florida’s 4th Circuit leads the state in the number of incarcerated girls in the most recent year, according to state figures. The region’s number of incarcerated girls, ages 10-17, is more than in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Broward combined.
Officials with the Weaver policy center said programs in Miami and Tampa are designed to help juveniles and their families engage in alternatives to incarceration. For example, a Miami program works to assess the needs of girls, whereas a similar program in Jacksonville is underfunded and only assesses a juvenile’s risk to re-offend instead of exploring root causes.
“So we just lock her up because she has a risk to re-offend,” said Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the policy center.
In Tampa there is a mental health court to help with juvenile cases, said Ravoira, but Jacksonville doesn’t have such a court.
“If there’s a person who needs mental health services [in Tampa] those services are available right in the courtroom,” Ravoira said. “So we don’t have the diversion services or the treatment services that’s needed to provide the interventions that’s needed for the girls in this community.”
Some of the reason for the disparity between Jacksonville and other cities is Northeast Florida’s attitude toward juveniles, the advocates said.
“It is political, it’s more of a get-tough approach,” said Vanessa Patino Lydia, the policy center’s director of research and planning.
The other communities have cultures “where they’re responding to kids in a very different way than the culture that exists in this community,” Ravoira said.
A call to State Attorney Angela Corey’s office for comment on the forum and the rate of incarcerated girls was not returned.
The forum’s speakers addressed funding gaps, service needs and called for policy shifts to decrease the number of incarcerated girls.
Next for the policy center is to develop its legislative platform which will include an effort to fund more juvenile probation officers in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, Ravoira said. The policy center will also be providing gender-responsive training to all probation officers in the three counties. The training is planned for later this year or early 2014.
The center also plans to soon begin working with the local juvenile detention center to review policies and practices to see how responsive they are for girls. After the review the policy center will develop a plan of action.
Finally, the policy center will interview every girl from five counties in the First Coast who is incarcerated. The interviews will seek detailed information about each girl’s pathway to incarceration, their recommendations for improving the system and what their ambitions are after they are released.
The detention center review and the interview project are expected to be completed by the end of 2014, Lydia said.
Topher Sanders: (904) 359-4169