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A Children's Crusade

In May of last year, state legislators and bureaucrats traveled around Florida to tout a new "Tough Love" package for delinquents that Gov. Jeb Bush had signed. The carnival of suits and ties who stood smiling for photo ops included Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) secretary W.G. "Bill" Bankhead, whose office provided reporters with carefully graphed charts indicating how tough the state would become: Sixteen- and seventeen-year-old defendants would be treated as adults if they carried or discharged a firearm while committing a crime; a "four strikes" law would allow teenagers to be charged in adult court if they had three felonies on their records; stays in state detention centers would be longer; and juveniles who violated parole would be quickly apprehended. In commenting on the measure, Bankhead seemed to summarize the state's attitude toward juvenile delinquency when he said: "I want to give our best shot to turn kids around, but after four times enough is enough and we need to make room for some other youngsters."

The so-called "Love" portion of the package included ten million dollars for drug-abuse and health programs, which officials glossed over while emphasizing the need for punitive statutes. When asked to provide examples of why Florida needed harsher laws, the suits demurred; instead they echoed Bush's comment a few days earlier that he wanted "to send a clear, direct signal that we will not tolerate habitual violence."

One week and one day after Governor Bush signed the bill, 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill fatally shot teacher Barry Grunow on the last day of classes at Lake Worth Community Middle School. So much for sending a signal to kids.

Florida's get-tough strategy started with the Juvenile Justice Act in 1990. "We saw an increase, not just in Florida but around the country, of harsher laws for juveniles beginning in the early 1990s," says Michael Dale, a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University and a founder of the Youth Law Center. Because many of these children may have disciplinary or mental problems, not criminal minds, "it's using the court to solve family problems or other problems a kid may have," Dale charges. Moreover, a Florida Department of Corrections report released last month found that imprisonment makes youths more likely to break the law as adults -- thus raising serious questions about the Tough Love package and similar measures.

In Broward County the number of cases that end up in juvenile court increased by almost 20 percent from 6454 in 1994 to 7617 in 2000. Many of them, especially the ones involving the youngest defendants, drag on for months because, before proceedings can be held, defense lawyers often request competency hearings. The aim of these hearings is to determine whether young clients are able to understand court matters, can help plan their defense, or are able to follow a rehabilitation plan. The competency hearing often takes months to prepare; children must be evaluated by at least two mental health experts. Thus, needed help is often slow to arrive.

And the number of kids younger than age 12 who are brought to court has grown dramatically, says senior assistant public defender Valerie Small Williams, a supervisor in her office's juvenile division. "When I did juvenile in 1997 and 1998, it was rare if I saw a twelve-year-old. It was shocking to see a twelve-year-old. If I saw a ten-year-old, I'd freak out," Small Williams recalls. "Now the threshold is down to seven. What's next? Will we bring them in from preschool? Or will they crawl into the courtroom?"

"Jayjay" is a cute little boy.

His hair, the color of toffee, springs from his head in a puff of wild curls, a coif only a small child could pull off. His almond-shape eyes sparkle when he jokes with his older cousin and looks at Pokémon paraphernalia with his five-year-old brother while they await Jayjay's turn in Broward's juvenile court. His clothes are clean and neat, adequate for court, though the blue-and-red-striped Tommy Hilfiger shirt and denim knee-length pants indicate a ten-year-old kid trying to emulate a teenager. He may be just a few years from adolescence, but Jayjay's rosebud mouth and chubby cheeks make him appear more like an overgrown infant.

Jayjay, whose identity is being withheld at the request of his mother, was first arrested last summer at age nine on felony charges of constructing a destructive device. According to a Broward Sheriff's Office report, on July 2, 2000, Jayjay combined Sno Bol toilet cleaner and aluminum foil in a two-liter plastic bottle, then placed it in the playground of a Pompano Beach apartment building. Deputies were called to the scene by a man who had spotted the smoke-filled bottle. They in turn called the bomb squad. The witness, meanwhile, told the officers he had seen Jayjay with the concoction and had collected his children from the park, fearful for their safety.

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Eydie Cubarrubia

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