tampabay.com

Juvenile crime solution sought

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published January 23, 2007


ORLANDO - One of the greatest obstacles to reversing violent crime across the state is fixing a broken juvenile justice system, which doesn't have enough consequences for repeat offenders, law enforcement officials said Monday.

Federal lawmakers and community leaders convened with state and local law officers for the second time in six months to discuss ways to combat an increase in crime across the state, including crimes committed by juvenile repeat offenders.

At the meeting, Orlando police Chief Michael McCoy said juveniles are committing more crimes because they do not face appropriate punishment.

State law allows a maximum of 21 days detention for juveniles, but most of them are held only a few hours. Adults charged with a crime are held until bond is met or a judge grants release, he said.

"You steal a car. Get convicted of stealing a car five and six times, and there are no consequences," McCoy said. "We have to change the rules to get results."

During the first six months of 2006, more than 500 murders were committed across Florida, an increase of more than 20 percent from the same period last year. Of those murders, 26 were committed by juveniles, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In central Florida, the number of illegal guns seized rose 215 percent, said FDLE Agent Joyce Dawley.

Meanwhile, an overall increase in crime in Orlando and Jacksonville has caused the statewide numbers to rise and authorities should be concerned, said Ronald Akers, a criminology professor at the University of Florida.

Officials also said about 80 percent of all juvenile crime is drug-related.

Many of the teenagers involved in crime are undereducated, unemployable and living below the poverty level, said Orange County Undersheriff Malone Stewart.

Stewart said that local and state governments should reach out to children before they commit crimes. "If you have high school, you don't commit these crimes," Stewart said.

Repeat adult offenders began as children, said Seminole County sheriff's Chief Deputy Steve Harriett.

"We need to continue to focus on juvenile offenders at an early age and try to turn them around before they become career criminals," Harriett said.

Tallahassee police Chief Walt McNeil was recently appointed to head the state Juvenile Justice Department. McNeil takes control after a firestorm of criticism surrounding the death of a teen last year following a confrontation with guards at a sheriff's boot camp in Panama City.