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Jacksonville-based Juvenile Justice nonprofit expands into Georgia

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A Jacksonville-based nonprofit that helps keep girls out of jail is expanding into Georgia as it celebrates its 35th anniversary. 

The PACE Center for Girls focuses on prevention as part of Florida's juvenile justice system. 

From its original center in Jacksonville that started with 10 girls in 1985, PACE had already expanded to 21 communities in Florida and provides social services in public schools across the state. 

President and CEO Mary Marx said its learning centers are intentionally small, capped at between 60 and 80 girls.

"And that's because we create a family environment. We meet the individual needs of the girls, we understand what they need, and we can provide it to them," she said.

Marx said the newest center in Macon, Georgia, came about because lawmakers there saw how effective it's been. One indicator: The number of teen girls arrested in Florida has fallen by half over the past decade.

But the work is far from over, with about 3,200 girls being served this year.

"Unfortunately, the need still exists," Marx said. "The girls that we're working with have a history of unresolved trauma … In some cases, it's family instability, it's poverty. That results in behaviors that can lead to truancy. It can lead to self harm. It can lead to lack of success in school, which can lead to dropping out," she said.

Marx said PACE performs a unique combination: direct services for girls along with policy advocacy in Tallahassee. 

"We can help girls develop a new set of skills and confidence and the ability to advocate for themselves, but if we're putting them back out into the world in which there are systems that are set up to ensure they don't succeed, they're not going to be successful," she said.

The expansion into Georgia comes as PACE moves its headquarters out of Downtown Jacksonville and into a facility on Philips Highway. Marx said the cost savings from that move will be invested into the learning centers so the program can reach more girls.

Teens are referred to PACE centers and to in-school social services in a variety of ways, including by teachers, social workers and themselves.

More information is at pacecenter.org.