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By Vinnie Giordano, PhD, C1 Contributor

The 1990s saw a growth in juvenile crime. Bureau of Justice statistics indicate that juvenile arrests for crimes against the person jumped from 16 percent in 1987 to 22 percent in 1996. The same increase occurred with drug cases, which were about 71,200 in 1987, but more than doubled to 176,300 in 1996. In 1997, there were 2.8 million arrests for individuals under the age of 18.

In response, the state of Florida created juvenile assessment centers (JACs) to address the multiple issues associated with the increase in juvenile arrests. Not only was law enforcement under increased pressure due to the rising call volume, but there was also great difficulty in finding placement for youth who were not detainable under the juvenile justice system.

In the early 2000s, I served as administrator of the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center (PJAC) and as the clinical supervisor for the Pasco JAC. During my time at the JACs, they were known as “one-stop shops” because of the number of services offered due to collaboration between law enforcement, the school system and social service agencies.

Juvenile Assessment Centers are funded through the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). While DJJ runs several JACs directly, they also contract out to other agencies such as Operation PAR Inc., Agency for Community Treatment Services (ACTS) and the PASCO County Sheriff’s Office. Presently there are 15 JACs in Florida, run by nine different agencies serving 35 counties.

How JACs benefit law enforcement

JACs provide law enforcement a central receiving facility that allows officers to present the youth for screening and booking. Instead of having to wait until a parent or guardian can be contacted, the officer presents the youth to the JAC screener for admission and once the juvenile is admitted to the facility, the officer is free to be on their way. The average time officers spent in the Pinellas JAC during my time as administrator was approximately three minutes.

In the majority of cases the youth was accepted without issue. On some occasions, however, the youth was not accepted to the facility. These cases primarily involved a medical issue, intoxication or suicidal ideation. Based on the particular situation, the officer was instructed to take the child to an appropriate facility for admission. While this might add more time to the officer’s day, the average time taken for these additional steps might be no more than an hour or two.

There are many other benefits that are not directly seen by law enforcement. The juveniles have access to various services including:

Psychosocial assessments; Interventions; Drug screening; Referral and linkage to additional services; Follow-up services.

While assessments at Juvenile Assessment Centers are voluntary, they are strongly encouraged by the staff. These bio-psychosocial assessments include questions about the youth’s criminal history, substance use, family history and a bevy of other aspects that can impact the life of the youth. The assessment is then used to make recommendation for potential treatment placement. In many cases the Juvenile Courts will use these recommendations when sentencing the youth. Successful completion of recommended treatments should reduce future criminal behavior.

Intervention is another service offered at the JACs. At the Pinellas JAC, the Sheriff’s department assigns personnel to the facility to help identify and link youth to its True Diversion program. This allows youth to seek treatment and make amends to the community for their crimes, freeing the youth from having a criminal record.

Drug screening is often paired with the assessment function, though the youth can and often are drug tested without an assessment as judges will order a drug test after court proceedings. The testing helps to link the youth to substance abuse services and can be a factor in sentencing.

Follow-up services involve a case manager who calls the youth to see if they have been linked to services. If not, the case manager will try to convince the youth to get involved in services.

The struggle to keep JACs open

As with many government functions, funding is an ongoing issue for the JACs as the state of Florida often cuts funding to meet budget goals. For example, in 2000, the state of Florida cut funding to the JACs significantly, which resulted in private agencies coming in to make up the budgetary difference. For example, after the state cut the budget in 2000, the Broward County JAC received a yearly in-kind contribution of $750,000 a year from The Children’s Services Council in order to pay for the Broward Sheriff’s Department to staff the midnight shift. However, in late 2018 the Children’s Services Council indicated it can no longer provide the funds, so the Broward JAC might need to close during the midnight shift.

A similar budgetary issue occurred during my tenure at the Pinellas County JAC. Since its inception, the Pinellas JAC received an in-kind contribution from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) in the form of security staffing with PCSO detention deputies. However, after the 2008 economic crisis PCSO decided to pull the detention deputies out of the JAC and staff the facility with a private security agency, which was more affordable.

However, by 2010 PCSO decided it could no longer justify paying for staff at the JAC without seeking compensation. As a result of this concern, PCSO decided to charge every outside agency that brings a youth to the Pinellas JAC a fee of $100 per admission. As you might imagine, this caused an initial uproar among the other law enforcement agencies. Soon this uproar subsided as all of these agencies realized that the JAC served a vital role in the everyday function of their agencies thereby ensuring the Pinellas JAC would continue to function.

Why JACs matters

JACs serve as a collaborative effort between law enforcement, the courts, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the school system and social service agencies. This collaboration allows for a more efficient relationship between all the agencies that serve youth, which in the end should provide the youth a clearer path to a crime-free life.

Many JACs see thousands of kids come through their facilities. In 2012, the Pinellas JAC had 5,176 youth accepted for admission, while in 2017, Broward JAC saw 3,422 youth admitted. While this number is down from a high of 7,696 in 2005, the need for the JACs is apparent when looking at current juvenile crime trends. Recently in Scott County, Iowa, officials have announced they are planning to open their own JAC in order to deal with recent crime trends such as the 212 percent increase in car thefts in the county.

Despite the fact that national crime trends point to annual decreases in juvenile criminal activity, many municipalities still see the value JACs bring to their community.

About the author Vinnie Giordano, PhD, is an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University, where he chairs and supervises doctoral dissertations. Prior to working in academics, Dr. Giordano was the Administrator of the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center and the clinical supervisor at the Pasco County Juvenile Assessment Center. Dr. Giordano’s experiences in the field of criminal justice and human services span over a 20-year period.

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