How Florida keeps kids in the criminal justice system

The Takeaway
Juvenile arrests
Central Florida leads the rest of the state in juvenile arrests. 

Each year, millions of children flock to Orange County, Florida, to visit Disney World. But in the background, there is a darker story at work.

Orange County has the highest number of juvenile arrests in the state. From June 2015 to June 2016, police arrested more young people in Orange County than Miami-Dade County, where the population is almost double. Nearly 64 percent of those incarcerated are African American boys.

In a new five-part series called "Young & Arrested," Renata Sago, a reporter for WMFE, explores how the state’s approach to crime may have created a cycle of recidivism that keeps kids from finding a life outside the criminal justice system.

“When a juvenile offender is arrested, it’s becoming a bit more complex because they’re being arrested for more severe crimes — I’m talking armed robberies, car burglaries,” she says. “The issue here is they’re being penalized for more severe crimes, and the approaches to them are a bit more severe.”

Sago points to Marquis McKenzie, who went to prison at 16 and was recently arrested again at the age of 26. As a teenager, McKenzie was “direct filed,” which means that “his case was moved from the juvenile court system to the adult criminal court system,” Sago reports.

“In this instance, there was a prosecutor who looked at this case — he was a first-time offender — and they said, ‘Hey, he needs to be sent to adult court,’” she says. “In Florida, prosecutors have what’s called prosecutorial discretion, so there’s a chance that you might get a young man, a young woman who commits the same offense, and they are not sent to adult court where chances are they will get a more severe penalty for what they have done.”

According to Sago, McKenzie went through the system but was released early for good behavior. He wound up attending community college for a period and started his own business later on. But McKenzie was recently arrested for illegally parking outside of a club and for resisting arrest.

“You have whole generations that had some [kind] of run-in with the law,” Sago says.

LeRoy Pernell, a former public defender and a dean at Florida A&M University, says that slapping severe punishments on children and identifying individuals as a problem early on in life can have long-lasting consequences.

“If you're told you're a problem long enough, and if you start to believe you're a problem long enough, you're going to need some serious psychological help to get past that,” he says. “We don't really plan for that anymore — systems don't really know how to deal with that.”

At 13 years old, Jaylon Cobb was labeled "high risk" for being involved in a gang and dropping out of school. At 14, he was sent to residential confinement, Sago says, for an armed robbery. He attributes this to his early life in Apopka, Florida.

“My father's a drug dealer, my uncles are drug dealers, my grandma used to sell drugs, my mamma — she talked to nothing but drug dealers,” Cobb says. “That's all I really knew for a point in my life. You know, I hang around with thieves, sooner or later I'm going to pick up some tendencies.”

According to Sago, Cobb, who is now 20 years old, believes he is escaping the cycle of recidivism because he received support from a woman at a juvenile defense clinic. But when kids are charged with a felony, it follows them for the rest of their lives. They can't vote, it becomes more difficult to get a job and they lose out on some of the most formative years of their lives.

“The kids who are breaking into houses and stealing cars, they're not just bad kids,” says Katherine Puzone, an associate professor at Barry University who oversees the school’s juvenile defense clinic. “It's a lot more complicated than that, and the more I learn about it, the more I think, you know, we're kind of putting the judgments of middle-class white people on kids who are living in a society that most of us can't even imagine.”

This story originally aired on The Takeaway