Jails R Us

Is Janet Reno's proposal for a new Youthful Offender Court a long-needed innovation or a chance to place a statute of limitations on childhood?

On July 20, State Attorney Janet Reno sent a four-page letter to circuit court Chief Judge Leonard Rivkind proposing the formation of a new Youthful Offender Court. Such a court, Reno explained, would allow a judge to draw upon "a full range of adult and juvenile sanctions" in sentencing young defendants. Given the glaring flaws in Dade's juvenile justice system, the special court seemed a reasonable, even innovative, measure. At least until one examined the fine print, where Reno fleshed out her plan.

"I propose to direct file [in adult court] on all 16- and 17-year-olds and seek indictments on all 14- or 15-year-olds charged with...serious violent crimes," Reno explained. "These offenders will be screened for participation in the Youthful Offender Court. However, those who have evidenced by the nature of the crime, or their prior record, that they are not amenable to rehabilitation I will prosecute vigorously solely as adults and seek substantial prison time."

In other words, virtually anyone fourteen or older who commits a violent felony in Dade County -- from a smash-and-grab robbery to murder -- would be channeled into the adult system, with Reno's office left to decide whether the teen-ager should be transferred to Youthful Offender Court. Normally such cases are processed through the juvenile system, which spares young defendants a criminal record and offers a variety of intervention programs short of incarceration in an adult state prison.

To Stephen Harper, chief of the Public Defender's juvenile division, Reno's new court "sounds like the last nail in the coffin of juvenile court." He calls Reno's plan "a wholesale policy change that simply circumvents the juvenile justice system. The bottom line, after all the rhetoric, is that they've given up on rehabilitation, and a lot of kids, almost all black, are going to go to prison for a long time. That's how society has decided to deal with the problem: a statute of limitations on childhood.

"The truth is, as of May the State Attorney's Office has been sending juveniles into the adult system anyway," Harper adds. "They've already changed the policy. This new court is just window dressing."

Shay Bilchik, one of Reno's top assistants, argues that the special court should be a welcome addition to public defenders, because it provides a venue for defendants who -- given prosecutors' tough new policies -- would otherwise face the harsh sentences of felony court. A few weeks ago Bilchik and Harper met separately with a member of Chief Judge Rivkind's staff. The Youthful Offender Court was approved in concept and Bilchik says he is optimistic Rivkind will formalize the plan with an administrative order in a matter of weeks.

Harper, meanwhile, feels as though he's got a gun to his head. "Everyone's saying, `Hey, c'mon Steve. Isn't this a swell idea?' Well, it's not a swell idea. It's a power play. It used to be that juvenile judges decided when a kid should be treated as an adult. The way this thing's set up, Ms. Reno's office makes that call unilaterally. Never mind the judge or the social workers."

Reno justifies her new stance by citing the sharp rise in crimes committed by teen-agers. From 1989 to 1991, she notes, the number of Dade juveniles arrested for murder increased 55 percent, while those booked for armed robbery leaped 205 percent. "The juvenile justice system lacks the resources and procedures to effectively rehabilitate, punish or merely incapacitate these juvenile offenders," Reno states in her letter to Rivkind. "Police advise that juveniles believe nothing is going to happen to them in juvenile court. These crimes are far too serious to continue to handle them in a system which is so overwhelmed." (Reno declined to comment on her proposal.)

"I understand Janet Reno's concerns, but she's plain wrong on this one," says Tom Petersen, a juvenile court judge and another opponent of the plan. "I know these kids better than the State Attorney's Office. Many of them are salvagable. So is juvenile court. Look, I've been the system's biggest critic, but I believe we're finally being honest with ourselves about the changes we need to make. I know the public is impatient, but there's been a tremendous wave of energy and new ideas around here. It's not fair to create an institution that will obliterate the juvenile system when we're so close to a breakthrough."

While Reno's letter mentions an overall jump in juvenile crime, Petersen contends the prosecutor is, in fact, reacting to a specific public outcry -- the rise in smash-and-grab robberies. "I understand where Janet's coming from because people are shocked at these crimes. But the other side of the coin is that we're talking about kids who are twelve to fifteen years old. The crime sounds awful when they read it off the police report for the grand jury, but you have to look at the person who committed the crime. I see these kids in my court. They're four feet, five inches and weigh 102 pounds."

Public defender Harper foresees major logistical snags in Reno's Youthful Offender Court. Many defendants, he predicts, will be refused access to the special court based on its limited capacity. According to Reno's proposal, the court would run one-half day per week, would be administered by one judge, and would handle an annual caseload of just 100. But Harper points that her new policy of indicting teen-agers will send more than 1000 young defendants into the adult system each year. Harper also worries that a dramatic increase in the number of juvenile defendants housed at the Dade County Jail -- where they must be squeezed into crowded cells, separated from adult inmates -- will invite violence.

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