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Tampa Bay Times: Ruth: Teenager is poster child for juvenile justice system problems


By Daniel Ruth, Times Columnist

Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012

At an age when most 16-year-olds dream of getting their driver's license, or primping for the prom, or maybe fretting about unwanted pimples, Larry Donell Brown sits in a jail cell. And he's going to sit there for a very, very long time.

In the eyes of the public, Brown is an accused murderer, charged in the Thanksgiving Eve shooting death of Tampa's Grande Oaks Apartments security guard Michael Valentin, 38, a husband and father of two young sons.

To Wansley Walters, Larry Brown is also the perverse poster child for all that is wrong with Florida's juvenile justice system, a young boy now lost forever in the haze and maze of bureaucracy.

Or long before Brown allegedly pulled the trigger on a stolen weapon that ended Valentin's life he was already well on an irreversible spiral that could only end behind bars for decades to come.

"This child is the biggest reason we need to reform the [juvenile justice] system," noted Walters. And she should know. Walters is Florida's secretary for the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Much has been made — and rightfully so — of Brown's criminal history, which began at the age of 10 and ended Thanksgiving Eve with 36 arrests, including 12 felony convictions. We weren't dealing with a precocious Oliver Twist-esque scamp of a lad. This was a prepubescent crime-wave-in-waiting.

The problem for Walters is that until recently law enforcement, the courts and other juvenile criminal justice practitioners simply didn't know how to contend with a 10-year-old criminal. "Children arrested under the age of 12 are a huge red flag," portending vastly more serious problems down the road, Walters explained.

"When you arrest an 8-, 9-,10-, 11-, 12-year-old," prosecutors don't want to file charges," she added, explaining there simply weren't viable programs available to effectively address young children committing felonies.

It's a vicious circle, Walters said. Young children rotate through the criminal justice system and because of their age little is done to impose severe sanctions for their behavior. And eventually these children become desensitized to authority. And when that happens, "The ability to work with the child disappears," Walters said.

How to change all this is also counterintuitive, according to Walters.

The secretary is touring the state to encourage local law enforcement and court systems to begin to adopt a civil citation protocol for first-time offenders, rather than pursue criminal charges.

With the issuance of a civil citation, Walters explained, a host of mechanisms kicks in, including community service, counseling, mentoring and other programs. The benefit is that the first-time offender would be afforded the prospect of avoiding a criminal record.

Put another way, at 16 with his long criminal history, Brown already was pretty much toast as far as ever getting a promising job, or admission to college, enlisting in the military, or being able to get a loan. There was, all too sadly, only one career option wide open to him. Unfortunately, it also involved a mug shot.

Does it work? Walters noted in communities with a civil citation system, there is only a 7 percent recidivism rate among offenders. For those who are incarcerated, the recidivism rate is 41 percent.

Of course none of this will do Larry Donell Brown much good. But he'll have a lifetime to ponder if it might have. So will the rest of us.