JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is describing the arrest and incarceration rates for black teen offenders in Jacksonville "excessive and discriminatory."
The group says the justice system is throwing young lives away by putting them in adult court.
"We are literally the worst in the world when it comes to the treatment of young people in the juvenile justice system," said Henry Thomas, of the SCLC.
"Forty percent of the population of Duval County are of African-American descent, but 73 percent of those are being arrested in Duval County as it relates to that," said R.L. Gundy, president of the SCLC.
The state attorney's office, however, calls the group's numbers exaggerated and points to a two-year trend of declining arrests of juveniles of all races. According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Duval County transferred 129 of its 158 juvenile prosecutions to adult court. That's a high rate, but Julie Taylor, director of county and juvenile court for the state attorney's office, says those cases are typically young violent offenders.
"You have no idea how much it makes my blood boil, because we make an effort not to make decisions on things that, quite frankly, do not play into a rational decision about a direct file," Taylor said.
SCLC members argue transferring children into the adult system results in higher recidivism rates, but 21-year-old Devin Jones argues he's proof that isn't true. He was tried as an adult and convicted of carjacking in 2009. Now free, he's working with local diversion programs and is focused on making a better life for his family.
"I'm glad that I experienced that because it made me the man I am today," Jones said. "If I didn't experience that, there's no telling. I could be worse off. I could be dead."
While both sides say they're open to talking about how to steer youth away from a life of crime, Jones says he hopes his story resonates with today's youth.
"This experience has definitely taught me to be my own individual and to just keep striving for it in a positive direction, because you get in what you put out," he said.
The SCLC is holding a town hall meeting to address the issue at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University of North Florida's University Center. Anyone interested is invited to attend.
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