Children at Risk: Juvenile Justice

By Lawrence Hardy

The police officer was joking with them, wondering what seven girls were doing stuffed into a car. All were wearing the baggy clothes boys typically do -- all except Carla in the driver’s seat, dressed up all nice and feminine.

“Why aren’t you in the dress code?” he quipped.

Carla, 18, doesn’t remember when the mood changed. Maybe the officer looked down and saw the four BB guns, the paintball gun, or the Wal-Mart bag full of ammunition on the floor of the car. But the next thing she knew, she was being yanked out, crying uncontrollably.

“I blinked, and there was one cop,” she says outside a classroom at the minimum security Lighthouse Care Center in Broward County, Fla. “I blinked, and we were surrounded.”

The story of Carla -- Lighthouse staff asked that her first name be changed -- isn’t one of marauding youth gangs or juvenile killers. But it is more typical of adolescent delinquency. She broke up with her boyfriend, got depressed, started acting out in school, and ran away from home. That night in Tampa last May she’d planned to go drinking with friends, she says, but someone came up with “this dumb idea” to rob drunk people out wandering the street. Even after pleading “no contest” and ending up at Lighthouse, she insists that she wasn’t responsible, that one girl had lied to police to frame her, that it was all “a big misunderstanding.”

In another sense, Carla’s story may not be typical at all, not for Florida or for the nation as a whole: She is returning to high school and plans to go to college. If she succeeds, she will have prevailed against tremendous odds. According to a study of incarcerated teens by Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University, two-thirds of first-time ninth-graders who return to school from incarceration later withdraw or drop out. Among ninth-graders who have been held back, more than three-quarters quit.

Would you like to continue reading?
Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.