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Teen Court may adjourn permanently

Unless Pasco County replaces funding from the state, the juvenile justice program will be eliminated.

By CARY DAVIS
Published June 9, 2003

Pasco's Teen Court program could be shut down next year as part of a major overhaul of the state court system's financial structure.

Legislators, in an emergency session late last month, voted to eliminate the funding mechanism used to pay for Teen Court programs in the state's 20 judicial circuits.

The change takes effect on July 1, 2004, to comply with a constitutional amendment shifting most court system costs from the counties to the state budget. The amendment, passed by voters in 1998, also requires county clerks of court to begin covering their costs with fees and fines, instead of tax money.

Currently, a $3 surcharge for every criminal conviction and traffic violation goes into a trust fund for Teen Court. Beginning next July, that money will instead be used to fund clerk of court offices in the state's 67 counties.

Teen Court is a diversionary program for juveniles facing a first-time offense. Court staffers screen incoming files to determine whether a juvenile is eligible for the program.

Teens selected for the program are then tried by a jury of their peers instead of adults. Teen volunteers also serve as prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Teen Court advocates say the program allows first-time offenders to go through a trial and face consequences for their actions but still emerge without a blemished record.

"This keeps them totally out of the courts," said Circuit Judge Linda Babb, who helped launch the program in Pasco in 1994 when she was a state prosecutor. "You don't want your children to have a record the first time they mess up."

The program, advocates say, also serves as a valuable educational tool for the teen volunteers.

"They get a firsthand look at how it happens," said Declan Mansfield, a New Port Richey lawyer who volunteers as a Teen Court judge. "It's like a hands-on civic class."

Last year, 1,045 juvenile offenders in Pasco passed through the program, said Ron Stuart, spokesman for the 6th Judicial Circuit. In Pinellas, 2,728 juveniles were referred to Teen Court. In both counties, juveniles in the program performed about 2,300 hours of community service, Stuart said.

The annual budget for Teen Court in Pasco runs about $80,000, Stuart said. That breaks down to about $77 per offender.

In taking away state funding for Teen Court, lawmakers made the program a county option. Legislators - facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall coupled with voter mandates to reduce classroom size, establish universal prekindergarten education and build a regional bullet train system - decided to fund only those court programs deemed "essential."

So the future of Teen Court depends on whether county commissioners step in and fund the program.

But with the county's budget already stretched thin to keep pace with the infrastructure and service needs of the area's fast-growing population, it's uncertain whether there will be any money left for Teen Court.

County Budget Director Mike Nurrenbrock said it was too early to tell. The issue will likely come up during budget hearings later this summer, he said.

"We're still waiting to get more information out of Tallahassee," Nurrenbrock said.

Bill Lockhart, administrator of the 6th Judicial Circuit, which encompasses both Pasco and Pinellas counties, said losing Teen Court would create a massive backlog of juvenile cases.

Cases now handled in Teen Court would be placed back on the dockets of circuit judges. To handle the increased caseload effectively, the circuit would need to add the equivalent of 21/2 judges, Lockhart said.

That won't happen, at least for a while. Legislators didn't fund the Florida Supreme Court's request for 37 new judges across the state.

"The impact is not just doing away with Teen Court," Lockhart said. "It's what will happen to our caseloads and, ultimately, the ability of judges to do their jobs effectively."

The 1998 voter mandate was supposed to bring more uniformity to Florida's court system, giving residents in poorer, smaller counties access to the same programs available in larger jurisdictions flush with cash.

Counties currently pay for about 60 percent of the state's court system. As of July 2004, the state will begin paying about 80 percent.

If what's happening to Teen Court is any indication of things to come, Judge Babb said, there's reason for concern.

"It seems like instead of raising the level of services in the smaller counties," she said, "what's happening is that everyone is getting moved down to the lowest common denominator."

Said Lockhart: "The long-range forecast is somewhat bleak . . . If this legislative session is any indication, I think we'll continue to see a reduction in services in our courts."

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 9, 2003, 02:03:18]


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