By Sarah Krantz, Esq.
Last week, WMFE’s Renata Sago premiered Young & Arrested, her five-part series on Orange County’s high rate of juvenile arrests. The series’ five stories are told through the eyes of three African-American men who were charged with felonies as children.
A Boy in Prison by Age Fourteen
While the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) shows crime rates at a 40-year low, Orange County reports the highest number of juvenile arrests in the state. Within Orange County, one sliver of the Pine Hills neighborhood accounts for the highest volume of those juvenile arrests. Most of these arrests are for felony offenses alleged committed by young, black boys between the age of 12 and 16.
The story of Marquis McKenzie echoes this phenomenon, which has been ongoing for decades. McKenzie moved to Pine Hills when he was elementary school and was raise by a single mother in a low-income community. McKenzie described the move to Pine Hills as going “from the projects to the upper class of the projects.”
McKenzie used the money that he made mowing laws to gamble. At the same time, his mother’s boyfriend began to abuse her, which McKenzie used as an excuse to “be harmful to people.” By the time he was a young teen, he was getting into fights in school, joined a gang, and focused his attention on making money and being “the man.” Guns had become easy to come by and were cheap; two firearms could be purchased for $80. McKenzie and his friends all had them and they would use them to rob people on the weekends for quick cash. On a good day they could make $600 or $700.
One day, one of those robberies got him arrested and charged with “robbery, possession of a firearm, burglary of convenience, and resisting an officer without violence.” Because Florida law allows state attorneys to “send kids to adult court without a juvenile hearing or input from a judge,” the local State Attorney’s Office was able to direct file McKenzie into the adult criminal justice system, despite the fact that he was only 14 years old. Florida’s direct file rate is disproportionately high compared to other states. In 2016, 62 percent of children direct filed are black, according to the DJJ. While direct filing a youth does not always mean they receive a harsher punishment, although that is the norm.
Twelve years later, McKenzie, who is now 26 years old, has two sons and a felony criminal record. The crimes of his youth will follow him for the rest of his life—denying him the right to vote, stigmatizing him, and always making him check the felony conviction box on job applications.
A Boy Sent Away to Residential Confinement
When a youth is stopped by police and taken in, there are two places they could end up—Orange County Jail or the Orange County Juvenile Assessment Center (JAC). JAC is located in Parramore and when you walk in, you see “intake staff, probation officers, private security, representatives from Orange County Public Schools, and community service providers.”
For a child going through the process at JAC, first they get screened in a process known as a PACT assessment, which gathers “information on kids school, their mental health history, substance abuse history, whether they have been involved in a gang, and what sort of extracurricular activities they may be involved in within their community.” This information allows staff to determine what recommendations need to be made for the juvenile and gives each juvenile a score that is used by judges. They also encounter intake staff that decides if they go to a juvenile detention facility or get to go home.
Jaylon Cobb grew up on 10th Street in Apopka, which he described as “one of the hardest streets to grow up on, on this side of town.” He was born to a teenaged mother and a father who was incarcerated for drug convictions. When Cobb was 13, he joined a gang and soon found himself charged with robbery while carrying a gun on his person. He was sent to the Charles Britt Academy, an all-male, 28-bed residential confinement program, for 18 months.
The facility is one of 50 in the state and is operated by a private provider. Over the last 20 years, the state has privatizes its residential facilities by contracting private providers to provide security, medical care, programs, and food. Concerns over how these private companies are actually running the residential programs has led to some contracts being canceled. Juvenile residents have reported not getting proper rehabilitative services; as a result, the facility has a high rate of recidivism.
Cobb, now 20 years old and free, has earned his GED and is employed as a team supervisor at McDonald’s. “I met a lot of people who did less than me. Got direct filed,” he thinks back. “I had people backing me, you know what I’m saying. You gotta give some people some kinda chance. Everybody who’s a felon is not a felon by choice. Some people was[sic] in a situation where they couldn’t help it. I was.”
A Boy Who Went From a Classroom to a Courtroom
Kent Johnson was charged with battery against a school resource officer (SRO) t Winter Park High School when he refused to take off his hat off during school hours. Johnson says the officer grabbed him; the SRO reported that he “gently patted him on the shoulder.” Regardless of what actually happened that day, Johnson ended up in the back of a police car and was taken to JAC, where he was charged with a felony and had his fingerprints and mugshot taken.
Fortunately for Johnson, the State Attorney’s Office decided to send his case to teen court. Teen court “is the longest running program in Orange County to keep youth out of the criminal justice system and give them a second chance.” Teen court allows teenagers to act as defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerk court deputies, and jurors. Each case is decided by a volunteer attorney who serves as the judge. Usually, first-time juvenile offenders placed in teen court as a way to avoid a formal conviction.
Recently, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) has begun reviewing how it handles juvenile delinquency on school grounds and has come to the conclusion that rehabilitation should be the main goal—which would mean abandoning zero-tolerance policies. Crime in schools is also declining; the number of juveniles arrested by OCPS’s District Police is a small percentage—6.4 per 1,000 students, according the DJJ. This is a 30-percent reduction from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year. Since then, the Restorative Justice Partnership, a diversionary program, was launched in Orange County with three goals: “To decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, dramatically decrease unnecessary arrests on campus, and more strategically address what officials call spillover from the community into the schools.” The school district has also created its own police force with hopes that this will reduce juvenile arrests. The school district and State Attorney’s Office hopes programs like these and teen court will help keep kids out of the system and put them on better tracks.
High Risk, High Need, High Potential
It takes a village to reduce juvenile crime. That is why law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, youth advocates, and religious leaders have come together to form a task force that will address juvenile crime in Orange County through prevention, intervention, enforcement, and prosecution. Another program serving juveniles is Man Up, which is a youth mentorship program in Pine Hills. Man Up aims to give juveniles exposure after realizing that it’s the lack of exposure that is tying youths to poverty, a broken family structure, and a lack of direction. They do this through talking, making vision boards, answering questions, and figuring out how to deal in hard situations.
Robert Wesley, Public Defender for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange County and Osceola County, also wants to see changes in the system. In particular, Wesley is calling for more counselors, social workers, and other services to help rehabilitation juveniles.
The DJJ began a formal revamp of the juvenile justice system in 2011 by “switching gears from being tough on kids to focusing on research and data to understand them.” Previously, the DJJ was spending hundreds of millions of dollars without much success. The DJJ is hoping that new assessment tools will help identify where a juvenile needs help so that they can actually provide them with the services they need. A push for the use of juvenile civil citations may also prove to be helpful in reducing recidivism rates.
What to Takeaway from Orange County’s High Juvenile Arrest Rate
Sago wrapped her week-long series on juvenile arrests by answering some questions about what she reported on and what she learned. Some of the highlights are listed below:
- Kent Johnson is currently attending Ohio State University and considering a career the medical field.
- Jaylon Cobb just got a job at the Gap as a supervisor. He aspires to get married, have a family, and own a food truck business.
- Marquis McKenzie has a cleaning company and is now learning how to remodel homes. However, he was arrested in early March of 2017 for trespassing and resisting arrest after being told that his car was parked in the wrong place. He has not yet been charged, but he did spend time in jail as a result.
- There are varying explanations on why black youth are arrested at higher rates than youths of other races. Orlando Police Department (OPD) Chief John Mina and former State Attorney Jeff Ashton argue that officers do not respond to how people look—only to how they act. Public Defender Robert Wesley, on the other hand is very vocal about juveniles of color being treated differently than white juveniles.
- Orange County has the most arrests in the state because of its high rates of juvenile recidivism. Wesley believes that this is because the approach to juvenile delinquency is different in Orange County than in other places, not because the kids in Orange County are worse than kids in other counties.
- In Orange County, there is a growing push for juvenile civil citations, which are tickets for misdemeanor first-time juvenile offenders.
- Currently, Floridians with felony convictions are barred from voting in elections, serving on a jury, and a host of other activities. To do so, one must petition the state clemency board to get those rights restored—a process than can take years. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is working on legislation that would restore the rights to former felons who have served their time.
Sago also spoke about her research in an interview on WGCU. Listen to the interview.
 The report did not indicate what McKenzie was found guilty of or what his sentence was.
 Renata Sago, What to Takeaway From Orange County’s High Juvenile Arrest Rate, WFME, (March 31, 2017). Accessed at http://www.wmfe.org/analysis-why-orange-county-leads-florida-in-juvenile-arrests/71132.