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A Quick Explainer: What to Take Away from Orange County's Juvenile Arrest Rate

Photo: Joey Roulette
Photo: Joey Roulette

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. As part of the final installment of Young & Arrested, 90.7’s Renata Sago discusses what's next for juvenile justice in Orange County and what we can take away from the voices in the series.

This is the last of Renata Sago’s five-part series on Orange County’s high juvenile arrest rate, Young & Arrested. Learn more here.

Young & Arrested is told through the lens of three young black men. What is most striking about their experiences?

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

[caption id="attachment_71636" align="alignright" width="400"] Data from Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice black kids make up 64% of juvenile arrests. (Click to enlarge.) Photo: DJJ.[/caption]

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. Also, for many cases of black and Latino kids ending up in jail, it has to do with them coming from communities where poverty is a factor and there aren’t many resources. That means kids grow up in survival mode.

Angel Sanchez, who is Cuban American and grew up in Miami, went to prison as a teenager. Now, he is in his 30s wrapping up his bachelor's at the University of Central Florida and preparing for law school. He talks about these two segments of the United States—one where graduating high school is normal; and another that is considered counternormative:

"Graduating high school seems to be the hard thing to do; dropping out seems to be normal, getting a 9 to 5 job; minimum wage, selling drugs, robbing, stealing. Those seem the things that seem to be normal. As an adult looking at them, we know that they’re very young and immature and have a lot of odds stacked against them, but teenagers don’t see that," he said.

Kids are a reflection of their environments, he's saying. So the question becomes, what is done when they make mistakes and what’s done to change them and their environment.

What are the young men featured in Young & Arrested doing now? 

There’s 18-year-old Kent Johnson, who was sent to teen court over an incident with a school resource officer. He is back in Ohio with his family. He is attending Ohio State University where he is in an exploratory program and considering the medical field.

There’s 20-year-old Jaylon Cobb from Apopka, who was sent away to residential confinement. He was a supervisor at McDonald’s when my reporting began. He just got a job as a supervisor at a Gap store. He told me about his long-term goals:

“The only thing I want to do is have a family. I wanna have a wife. I wanna have my kids, and I wanna have my business—whether it’s a food truck, whether it’s construction, whether it’s selling acorns! I wanna have something that’s mine. A lot of people miss that thing. You don’t have to have a lot of money. Just having something that you can pass on generation to generation to keep your name alive, I mean that’s something I want to do,” he said.

[caption id="attachment_71635" align="alignleft" width="298"] Photo: Marquis McKenzie and his two sons.[/caption]

Then there's 26-year-old Marquis McKenzie, who was sent to prison at fourteen years old. He has his cleaning company and now he’s getting training to learn remodeling. He really believes that if you change someone’s living condition, you can change their mindset. He talked about some shocking similarities between how prisons are set up and how public housing complexes are.

In early March, he was arrested for trespassing and resisting arrest. Police told him his car was parked in the wrong place. Those charges were later dropped.

**Read more about McKenzie's story here, in a column published in the Orlando Sentinel.**

Is what happened to McKenzie common?

It depends. You come across young men who’ve been out of prison and never been in an situation with any police after that. Then you have young men who do have run ins with the law. McKenzie says there are a few reasons that happens. Sometimes it’s bad choices. And other times it’s targeting. I spoke with McKenzie, who said:

“For myself I had a few run ins and I kind of feel like some of it was kinda my fault, but some police just don’t believe that you’re out here doing the right thing. Once you’re a convict, you’re always going to be a convict and you commit crime.”

Now, I spoke with Orlando Police Chief John Mina and also former state attorney Jeff Ashton. They are very hesitant to speak to any sort of disproportionate arrest rates or bias, especially tied to skin color or potential racial bias.

What’s been the view of law enforcement in Orange County about what’s happening specifically with young black men?

Orlando Police Chief John Mina and also former state attorney Jeff Ashton maintain that officers respond to how people act, not how they look. However, the current public defender Robert Wesley is very vocal about his encounter with kids of color being treated differently than white kids in the system. The state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties, Aramis Ayala, has spoken in past interviews about disparate treatment of kids of color. One insightful voice in law enforcement has been Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, who is black. He grew up poor in Pine Hills and says positive programs are key to keeping kids of color there—and in other communities like it—out of trouble.

"If they go down the path and they get involved, we gotta deal with it," he said in an interview. "We cannot close our eyes and say that it’s not happening. The fact that it’s disproportionately black or minority, well that’s a travesty for us as a society. That’s not a police problem."

What makes Orange County such an outlier when it comes to juvenile arrests?

The numbers have to do with recidivism. More kids in Orange County are being arrested multiple times. That’s what’s driving the numbers.

What’s behind the high recidivism in Orange County?

There is no one answer. It has to do with what is going on within families, neighborhoods, schools, and how law enforcement approaches kids. As the public defender Robert Wesley and others have pointed out, none of this is an indication that the kids here are any different from kids in other parts of Florida. It’s just that the approach to kids is different here.

After four months reporting on the juvenile justice system and the people involved in it, what stands out most:

A few things. What really struck me is something the Honorable Daniel Dawson, a long-time juvenile judge, told me; that in his more than twenty years working within the

[caption id="attachment_71649" align="alignright" width="400"] There are several paths a kid can take once entering the juvenile justice system. Photo: Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (screenshot).[/caption]

Department of Juvenile Justice, he has found that politicians—the people who make the laws about how kids who commit crimes—have no idea how the juvenile system works.

Something else that struck me is how complex the system is and that it’s contracted out to private companies—many that are security companies which are not initially designed to offer rehabilitative care that emphasizes therapy and education.

And then, how easy it can be once you fall into the cracks to fall even deeper. For kids coming from communities where there aren’t jobs—and where people create their own opportunities that can be illegal—it is tough to stay on the straight and narrow. That is where the high recidivism rate comes from.

The juvenile justice system is a complex system—and people in it often say that it is where kids end up when society has failed them.

Katherine Puzone, Associate Professor of Law at Barry University, has defended juvenile cases for the past eight years. She said the current system is treating kids as throwaways and that she sees their potential when she goes to the detention center and talks to them: 

"You realize how smart they are, how creative they are. 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. If I hear that phrase pull yourself up by your bootstraps one more time, when you put kids in this system, you’re taking away their shoes."

[caption id="attachment_71299" align="alignleft" width="400"] Lieutenant Jim Deleu leads a meeting with Orange County deputies, residents, and researchers about the area's violent crimes.[/caption]

There has been momentum in Pine Hills to really target that spike in violence, right? 

Yes, that has been the focus of the Orange County Crime Violent Crime Prevention Task Force for the last year. It is being spearheaded by the sheriff’s office and other groups. They are looking at preventing kids from entering the system and also making sure resources are available for young men when they get out of the system. Then they are looking into proposing changes to the way the law is set up and how it is enforced.

Are we seeing any movement across the state to respond to high juvenile arrest rates?

In Orange County, we’ve seen a growing push toward civil citations. Those are tickets for first time offenses that are not felonies. We’re seeing more of those issued on school campuses and out in the community. In fact, this area had some major gains last year which juvenile justice advocates have celebrated. This is also getting attention in the legislature.

But the one thing about civil citations is that kids that have committed a felony offense for the first time are ineligible to receive a civil citation. The secretary of Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Christina Daly, says that the 8 or 9 percent of kids that end up committing more severe crimes and eventually getting back in trouble need the most resources.

The long term effects for these kids are being debated right now. That includes restoring civil rights to ex-felons. What’s happening on that front?

There is  a group called the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. It’s looking to have civil rights restored to people who were formerly incarcerated and served their time. Florida is one of very few states where if you’re an ex-felon you cannot vote; you cannot serve on a jury; and a host of other things. You have to go before a clemency board to get those rights restored in a process than can take years. Right now the state supreme court is considering whether to approve the language for a proposed amendment to Florida’s constitution that would restore rights automatically. If approved, Floridians would vote on it as early as 2018.