A Children's Crusade

South Florida prosecutors are going after kids younger than 12 years old in record numbers

It's been a year since Jayjay's arrest, and he has not completed Fire Starters. (Neither his mother nor his lawyers would comment on the reason.) On the morning of his hearing, the courtroom appears much like all the others in the Broward County Courthouse's north wing, a brightly lit space with honey-hued wooden paneling and benches. At the beginning of the morning calendar call, not enough seating room is available; juveniles and their parents are forced to stand around the gallery's perimeter. Jayjay, his mom, and his brother are lucky enough to find bench space.

When Jayjay's name is called, the trio stands before Circuit Judge Howard Zeidwig as assistant public defender Melinda Blostein coos over Jayjay. Blostein isn't alone: DJJ workers, other attorneys, and even the judge cannot help admiring the day's youngest defendant. "That's one good-looking kid," Zeidwig says with a smile. Then he grants the defense's request to assign psychologists to evaluate the little boy; after the reports are finished, the judge will set a date for a competency hearing.

Jayjay's mother, "Rena," is a pleasant-voiced, petite woman from whom the boy appears to have inherited his jovial eyes and tender lips. After the hearing she refutes some of the facts in the police report, including the allegation the witness's kids were endangered. "It was an empty field," she claims. "And there were other boys, but no one got in trouble except him." A group of young men taught her son how to make fireworks for the Fourth of July, she adds, but they aren't being prosecuted because none of them has admitted involvement.

At Mount Olive apartments, where seven-year-old Pooh Bear stabbed his cousin early this year, children frequently gather to play
Joshua Prezant
At Mount Olive apartments, where seven-year-old Pooh Bear stabbed his cousin early this year, children frequently gather to play
Assistant state attorney Maria Schneider wants to help the children she is forced to prosecute
Joshua Prezant
Assistant state attorney Maria Schneider wants to help the children she is forced to prosecute

"I asked [Jayjay] why he did something like that. He said it looked fun," Rena says. "I told him it was dangerous. He knows what he did was wrong." Asked what he thinks about his crime, the boy looks downward with a sheepish grin and says nothing.

Rena says she is a single parent who is raising her children with the help of relatives. She worries about her two sons but does not appear to have lost control over them. In the courthouse corridor, Jayjay acts like a child who has endured several hours of enforced quiet; he runs and laughs out loud. His mother scolds him in her soft but stern voice, and Jayjay obeys.

"Sure, he can act up," she says as she maneuvers her boys into the elevator. "But it's not anything I can't handle."

To understand how Florida started hauling kids into court for such minor infractions as Jayjay's, one must consider the history of juvenile-justice laws.

In 1991 Florida's First District Court of Appeal ruled that children could be placed on probation for an indefinite period as part of a rehabilitative program. In 1993 the same court ruled delinquents could be kept in detention while awaiting sentencing.

Then came the murder of British tourist Gary Colley at a rest stop near Tallahassee in September 1993. Four teenagers were charged in the shooting, which received substantial international attention because of its random brutality and the ages, ranging from 13 to 17 years, of the killers. When the 1994 state legislature convened, it approved a plan to form the new Department of Juvenile Justice to focus on kids who had been charged with crimes and directed the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to work on noncriminal matters such as foster care.

The legislature also changed the laws to make it easier for judges to jail children for contempt of court, lowered the age that a child could be transferred to adult court from 16 to 14, made it easier for judges to sentence youths as adults, created boot camps and other commitment programs, and required a five-day detention period and 100 hours of community service for each juvenile who commits a crime while possessing or using a firearm.

In 1997 state lawmakers created more ways to incarcerate children. One change increased the amount of time a child could be held in detention prior to a hearing under certain circumstances. Another new measure allowed authorities to detain a child if he or she was alleged to have violated probation or broken rules of a state-sponsored after-school program.

That year legislators also stepped into a bureaucratic battle between the DCF and the DJJ over which group should provide treatment. The DCF would take charge of counseling if a child's home life was in disarray. Lawmakers determined that only kids charged with felonies could receive court-ordered counseling and other types of therapy. As a result the law forces authorities either to charge children with serious crimes or to leave many of the young defendants in the cold. In most cases only kids found competent to stand trial get help; younger kids or those charged with misdemeanors are often excluded.

These days juveniles who end up in court charged with felonies have three options. They can:

plead guilty and enter rehabilitation;

choose not to fight the charges and agree to complete programs, then if they fulfill prosecutor's requirements, charges are dropped but if not, they return to court; or

plead not guilty or request a finding of incompetence.

The most ticklish situation occurs when kids are found incompetent to stand trial. A judge can order these young defendants to undergo treatment in order to gain competency. If the process is unsuccessful and they are unable to comprehend the legal process after two years, the charges are dismissed. And the treatment stops as well.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help