by Margie Menzel
The News Service Of Florida
The 2014 legislative session saw major gains for juvenile justice issues in Florida while also seeking to bolster the independence of foster children.
Lawmakers passed a rewrite (HB 7055) of laws governing the Department of Juvenile Justice, emphasizing prevention, increasing the agency’s accountability and creating a criminal penalty for the abuse or neglect of teens in its facilities.
On their fourth try, lawmakers passed a juvenile-sentencing proposal (HB 7035) that, if signed by Gov. Rick Scott, will bring the state into compliance with two major U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
And they passed a measure (HB 7141) aimed at Florida’s high rate of human trafficking activity, providing a wide array of services for sexually exploited children.
“2014 was a huge year for juvenile-justice reform and policy in the state of Florida,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
Meanwhile, teens in foster care convinced lawmakers to help them learn to drive, just a year after the Legislature passed two other groundbreaking foster-care bills.
But lawmakers did not resolve every major issue dealing with juveniles. For example, they failed to agree on a plan for dividing the costs of juvenile-detention facilities between the state and counties. That has been the subject of long-running legal battles, and counties hoped to get the issue addressed during the session.
Here are some of the top issues dealing with juvenile justice and the foster-care system:
House Bill 7055 would revamp the juvenile-justice system, incorporating many of the aims and methods of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Roadmap to Excellence strategy, begun in 2011 by Secretary Wansley Walters.
“It’s huge for us,” Walters said. “It makes prevention a really substantial legal part of the juvenile justice system. … It puts in accountability. It puts in protections for children.”
That includes performance measures for providers and transition services for youths leaving Department of Juvenile Justice facilities.
Equally important, Walters said, was the fact that the proposal never lost a vote, either in committee or on the floor. “We had consensus across the entire juvenile justice stakeholder continuum, which is so rare,” she said.
Bradley said it was the first rewrite of that part of state law in more than a decade.
“We codified the principles that were set forth when Secretary Walters took the helm at DJJ,” he said. “Now our statutes reflect the budgetary decisions that we’ve been making for the last two years, which is to continue to promote prevention efforts so that our juvenile crime rate will continue to go down.”
House Bill 7035 stems from a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions dealing with life sentences for juveniles. In a 2010 case, known as Graham v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court banned life sentences without a “meaningful opportunity” for release for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. That was followed by a 2012 ruling, known as Miller v. Alabama, which barred mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Juveniles can still face life sentences in such cases, but judges must weigh criteria such as the offenders’ maturity and the nature of the crimes before imposing that sentence.
Florida lawmakers have struggled to agree on how to comply with the rulings. But the bill they passed was a compromise. It calls, in part, for judicial hearings and sentencing standards that would vary depending on the nature of the crimes.
“After several years of trying to conform our sentencing laws to the dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, we were finally successful in doing so,” Bradley said. “I’m very comfortable with where we ended.”
Again, both chambers voted unanimously for the measure.
Both chambers unanimously passed a bill that would improve protections for sex-trafficking victims.
The services provided in the bill include treatment for sexual assault, behavioral health care, family counseling, life-skills training and screening and treatment for substance abuse.
The bill is intended to build on the Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012, which first created “safe houses” for trafficking victims and amended state law to classify forced prostitution as child abuse, rather as than a criminal act by the child. As a result, sexually exploited children may be legally considered wards of the state and not criminals.
The measure passed without a controversial provision that would have allowed some victims to be detained for treatment in a “secure safe house.” Lawmakers were torn between concerns about the provision’s constitutionality and fears about the safety of trafficked children in the control of pimps. Ultimately, they dropped the provision.
Mary Marx, president of the PACE Center for Girls, fought the provision but praised the bill that passed. She said one of the next steps is to clarify the definition of sexual exploitation of children with an eye to increasing the penalties for it.
“We have to figure out how to shut down the money side of the equation if we’re going to be successful,” Marx said.
Florida is estimated to have the third-highest rate of human trafficking in the United States, following New York and California.
House Bill 977 by Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, is known as the “Keys to Independence” bill. It’s aimed at keeping foster kids from falling behind their peers. Only 3 percent of foster kids can drive, because they rarely have access to the family car or high-school drivers’ education classes, much less parents willing to add them to their auto-insurance policies.
The bill would establish a three-year pilot program to pay for driver’s education, licenses and auto insurance for qualified foster children. It comes with $800,000 a year for three years to cover the costs.