TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Law enforcement officials say Florida’s juvenile justice system is putting you and your family in danger. 8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi found flaws in the state’s system that releases serious, even violent, criminals without jail time or consequence.

Right now, some teenagers commit crime after crime then immediately end up back on our streets, released. 

So why is this happening? 8 On Your Side found it’s not the judge, the prosecutor, a police officer or a social worker. In fact, most of the time, a human has no say in the matter. 

It all boils down to a formula employed by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

Earlier this year, on June 1, two children fired an AK-47, a shotgun and other weapons at deputies for 35 minutes in Volusia County. A frustrated Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood pointed to the troubled record of the 14 year-old girl involved and warned, when it comes to teenaged serious repeat offenders, Florida fails.

“You really need to be exposing the Department of Juvenile Justice. It’s a failure, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake,” Sheriff Chitwood said during a news conference on June 1, 2021.

8 On Your Side spoke with Sheriff Chitwood later and asked if the state department releases children who are dangerous.

“Absolutely. Absolutely, one thousand and one percent…we see it on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re talking about violent criminals, kids that like guns…they like to assault and beat and rob people.”

Think it’s just a Volusia County problem? It’s not. It happens every single day in the Tampa Bay area as well, according to law enforcement.  

“When the kid’s got re-arrest and re-arrest…he or she is not getting the picture,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.

In just a one-day snapshot in June, 53 juveniles arrested in Polk County had priors.

“I’m not interested in locking up any of the children,” said Sheriff Judd. “There’s a small, small percentage of all of our juveniles that have to be detained because if they’re not detained, they’re going to be out committing more crime.”

In St. Petersburg, 8 On Your Side found a 16-year-old was arrested 22 times for 47 separate charges including carjacking, burglary and auto theft.

In the four months between Aug. 12, 2020 and Dec. 18, 2020, a 17-year-old was arrested 10 times and accumulated 25 charges ranging from auto theft to burglary to credit card fraud.

“They understand the system better than law enforcement, better than some attorneys and some judges,” St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said.

Holloway told 8 On Your Side there’s no accountability.

“I’ve seen where a child gets arrested first thing in the morning for auto theft, they get released and that afternoon, they’re arrested again for auto theft,” he said.

As 8 On Your Side discovered, right after an arrest, a formula – not a person – determines if a juvenile stays in custody.

It’s called the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument or DRAI. It’s similar to a score sheet.

Juveniles rack up points for their age, severity of crime and priors. If the DRAI score isn’t high enough, the teen gets a court date and is then immediately released by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

The DJJ created the DRAI formula. The department convened a committee, that included police, to update it in 2017.

The DJJ says the new DRAI, “improves public safety through accurate and reliable risk-prediction.”

8 On Your Side asked Chief Holloway, the current Chair of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, what thinks of the DRAI formula.

“I don’t even understand it,” he said. “I think we need to, so to speak, start all over again.”

We repeatedly asked the DJJ to discuss the DRAI formula, and even went to Tallahassee to talk with DJJ Secretary Josefina Tamayo.

The department declined to discuss the issue on camera.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican representing District 12, serves on the Criminal Justice Committee. Baxley adopted two children from the system.

“We do not want children to grow up in prison,” Sen. Baxley said. “We know that many times kids get worse while they’re in incarceration.”

He believes a balance is needed between accountability and giving kids a second chance.

However, Sen. Baxley agrees that it’s time to reexamine at the DRAI formula.

“At the end of the day, whatever we’re doing is not interrupting their behavior,” he said.

In addition to Sen. Baxley, 8 On Your Side has put the other eight lawmakers who are on the criminal justice committee on alert.

“We can’t have catch and release if we’re going to teach juveniles accountability and responsibility,” Sheriff Judd said.

Law enforcement officials say they need help to protect the community and, ultimately, these troubled teenagers.

“That’s when I get upset because then when they turn 18, that’s when life hits them and it’s too late,” Chief Holloway said.

Florida law allows the DJJ to revise the DRAI formula but it’s not required. That’s why 8 On Your Side is getting lawmakers involved.

In recent years, there’s been a movement to keep children out of the criminal justice system. Law enforcement officials agree that diversion programs have been largely successful for the majority of teens.

However, they say, these programs are not working for a small subsection of juveniles.

Are you frustrated with Florida’s juvenile justice system? 8 On Your Side Investigator Mahsa Saeidi is looking to speak with parents, police officers and victims of juvenile crime.  If you would like to share your experience, contact Mahsa by emailing MSaeidi@WFLA.com.

Full statement from Florida Department of Juvenile Justice:

“Florida’s juvenile justice system consists of many key partners and stakeholders, including the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, who are tasked with the important responsibility of holding youth accountable for their actions while ensuring safety in our communities. It is this collaboration that has allowed Florida to achieve a historic 45-year low in juvenile arrests. This decline year after year also includes felony arrests, which in the last five years, have decreased 29%, and in Florida, nearly two-thirds of kids arrested for a first-time misdemeanor are never arrested again.

Part of this collaboration is determining the most appropriate placement for youth upon their arrest. That is why in 2017, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in partnership with representatives appointed by the Conference of Circuit Judges, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Public Defenders Association, the Florida Sheriff’s Association, and the Florida Association of Chiefs of Police, convened a committee to develop the current Detention Risk Assessment Instrument (DRAI). The DRAI is a tool which determines the most appropriate placement for youth upon their arrest. The DRAI is designed to evaluate a youth’s likelihood to reoffend in the short term or failure to appear for court following an arrest and prior to their initial court appearance. To ensure the validity of this new DRAI, an analysis was done of over 235,000 DRAI screenings. The committee concluded their work with the approval of a revised DRAI that improves public safety through accurate and reliable risk-prediction. The new DRAI went into effect July 1st, 2019.

DJJ is proud of the strong partnerships it maintains with our stakeholders, especially in our work to expand the use of juvenile civil citations throughout the state. Juvenile civil citations are locally driven with the goals of holding youth accountable for their delinquent behavior, involving parents in the sanctioning of youth, and preventing the youth’s further involvement in the juvenile justice system. The extremely low recidivism rate for youth who have participated in the civil citation or similar prearrest diversion process, which currently stands at only 4%, is an important indicator of the success we’ve seen in Florida.

DJJ is committed to doing our part to protect Florida’s communities while offering comprehensive services to help youth get back on the right track and succeed. Our department has, and will continue, to work together with our partners to achieve the best outcomes for our kids while keeping public safety at the forefront.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Chief Anthony Holloway serves on the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, not the 2017 DRAI Committee.