TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – State lawmakers are taking up an issue 8 On Your Side has spent months investigating the revolving door of Florida’s juvenile justice system.
Current state law ties the hands of law enforcement, forcing judges to release dangerous teenage criminals back on the streets after 21 days, according to interviews with a dozen law enforcement officials.
8 On Your Side exposed issues surrounding the law known as the 21-day hold back in October.
Essentially, there are two options after a juvenile offender is arrested: Take the teen to trial within 21 days or release the teen from custody.
It doesn’t matter if the teen is considered to be dangerous or a flight risk, the judge must let the teen go when the 21 days are up. Last year, law enforcement officials told 8 On Your Side they were beyond frustrated as trials rarely start in 21 days.
On average, it takes 100 days for a case to go from arrest to trial, according to the Florida Sheriffs Association.
In some jurisdictions with heavy caseloads and few resources, the road to trial can take more than 230 days.
While awaiting trial on the street, a small percentage of juvenile offenders wreak havoc in the community, committing crime after crime, say officials.
“We can’t have catch and release if we’re going to teach juveniles accountability and responsibility,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd last year.
St. Petersburg Police Department Chief Anthony Holloway agreed there is currently little accountability for serious, repeat teen offenders.
“That’s when I get upset because then when they turn 18, that’s when life hits them and it’s too late,” said Chief Anthony Holloway.
At a news conference in September in Pasco County, Investigator Mahsa Saeidi brought up law enforcement complaints about the 21-day hold to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Multiple law enforcement officers tell me that they’re very frustrated with our juvenile justice system,” said Saeidi.
“They say the system keeps releasing serious repeat offenders. Two flaws, one is the DRAI (the Detention Risk Assessment Instrument) and the second is the 21-day max hold.”
Gov. DeSantis said he would look into the issue and speak with Florida’s sheriffs and police chiefs.
“We absolutely would be willing to sit down, review that… and take any suggestions that they have,” said DeSantis.
This week those suggestions were heard by lawmakers at the Senate Committee on Rules.
“It’s been 44 years since the law changed regarding detention in the state of Florida,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Senate Bill 7040, Time Limitations for Preadjudicatory Juvenile Detention Care, would allow judges to detain serious criminals for a longer period of time pending trial.
The proposal only permits longer detention for teen offenders accused of capital offenses and violent felonies.
Sheriff Gualtieri told lawmakers this bill gives judges options but it does not require or mandate detention.
“What it does is address these kids that commit serious crime,” said Sheriff Gualtieri. “That’s why we’re asking for this expansion because we need it for public safety.”
However, not everyone is on board. Carlos Martinez, a representative for the Florida public defenders association says detaining teens longer would only increase crime and the system is working just fine.
“Felony arrests are down 34 percent since 2018 with the current system that we have,” Mr. Martinez told senators.
Right now, the bill has passed committees in both the house and senate and will head to the floor. Senators say they expect Gov. DeSantis would sign the bill into law.
The bill would not allow a court to endlessly detain a teen.
Every three weeks, the teen would go back before a judge and a hearing would be held. If the judge decided to keep the teen in custody, they would have to explain why in writing.