When a panel convenes this week to discuss juvenile justice reform in Pensacola, it will have more than academic relevance for the local area. It’s an issue local officials have struggled with for a while.
Keyontay Humphries, the American Civil Liberties Union’s regional organizer of Northwest Florida, points to a 2015 study by the James Madison Institute and Southern Poverty Law Center. In Escambia County, the study found, a child charged with a felony is four times as likely to be tried as an adult as a child living in Miami-Dade.
“This has a local implication,” Humphries said. “This issue of charging children as adults is definitely impacting the local community.”
The forum Wednesday evening (Oct. 26) in Pensacola is entitled Criminalizing Kids: The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Our Youth. It will feature both a panel discussion on the issue, as well as a screening of a film concerning the school-to-prison pipeline. The event is part of Youth Action Awareness Month.
Participants in the panel discussion include Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University, which was involved in the 2015 James Madison study; Minister Jeremy Graham, an activist who helped lead the effort to shut down the notorious and now-closed Walnut Grove Correctional facility in Mississippi; as well as author Dr. Amir Whitaker (“The Knucklehead’s Guide to Escaping the Trap”) and SPLC policy counsel in Florida Scott McCoy.
As of late last week, Humphries learned that the panel would also be featuring an individual who is first-hand familiar with the state’s youth justice system. The panelist — identified as J.P. — will be discussing his experience in Polk County.
According to Humphries, the panelist was charged with theft as a youth and while serving a sentence in a juvenile facility officials made the decision to absorb juveniles into the county’s adult facility. It resulted in an SPLC lawsuit.
While in the adult facility, the panelist was “beat up pretty badly.”
“That’s when he picked up his first adult charge, as a victim of assault,” Humphries said, explaining that the fight resulted in an assault charge.
Once released, the individual was apparently assaulted at his school, where he was again charged with assault. That charged was later dropped, but the violation of his parole stood.
“And he ended up doing two and a half years in prison,” Humphries said.
The former inmate — from his journey in a youth facility for theft, to his subsequent years behind bars — is now a student, trying to wrap up his GED. He’s also turned into an activist when it comes to juvenile justice issues.
“Out trying to tell his story and change the world,” Humphries said.
Groups like the ACLU and SLPC have worked with the local educational, law enforcement and judicial communities in recent years in an effort to curb the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. The organizations have encouraged the use of measures such as civil citations in lieu of arrests.
“We’ve seen some improvement,” Humphries said. “Law enforcement has really bought into the civil citation program.”
But youth are still being arrested. While Humphries sites a “slight decrease” in the number of misdemeanors — where civil citations are more likely to come into play — she also sees the continuance of felony charges for things like fighting at school or drug possession.
And she’s concerned with a minor’s prospects in the local judicial system. She’d like to see more diverting, less youth being tried as adults.
“We still have a court system that seeks to adjudicate children,” Humphries said, citing the 2015 study. “This is a judicial system that seeks to convict.”
The local panel discussion and film screening is scheduled for Oct. 26, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Earl J. Bowden Building, located at 120 Church St. in downtown Pensacola. The event is sponsored by the ACLU, SPLC, League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area, The Coffee Party, University of West FLorida Social Work Department and Escambia Youth Justice Coalition.