Critics Cry Foul Over Florida Bill Toughening Penalties for Kids Carry Guns

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While most U.S. cities reported significant drops in violent crime last year, there's a growing concern about juvenile offenders, and both blue states like Maryland and red states like Florida are looking to curb carjackings, armed robberies, and other serious crimes committed by underage offenders this session. Those efforts are running into resistance from some Democrats and violence intervention advocates, however, who contend that increasing the penalties for juvenile gun offenders is the wrong way to address the problem. 


“We do understand that you’ve got to hold people accountable, but it’s not just the kids you’ve got to hold accountable, so I want the total picture to be assessed,” said Freddy Barton, executive director of Safe and Sound Hillsborough

Barton's violence prevention collaborative runs crime diversion programs for youth in the county, including one focused on teenage boys arrested on gun charges.

On a recent evening, Barton told kids in his program to read the bill text and related news coverage about a significant spike in the number of kids getting arrested for gun possession locally.

Lawmakers need to address one of the primary ways kids get access to guns, Barton argued: adults who don’t store their weapons responsibly.

“How are we making sure, or trying to ensure that people don't leave guns in cars unlocked, or unlocked in the house or unsecure, so that probing minds and young, immature minds, don't get their hands on these guns?” he said.

Well isn't that a nice bit of victim-blaming on the part of Barton. Does he also think we need to encourage women to dress more modestly so that "young, immature minds" aren't driven to a sexual frenzy and act out by committing rapes and assaults? 

I don't know about you, but when I was growing up the thought of breaking into a home or car to steal a gun never crossed my mind at all, and even today the vast majority of teens will make it to adulthood without committing a burglary or other serious offense. It's one thing to recognize the challenges that at-risk youth face in order to help them overcome adversity. It's something else altogether to make excuses for their criminal activity and try to place the blame on those they've victimized. 


Provisions that extend the amount of time some youth could serve in detention centers also concern Barton.

Under the proposal, minors would spend five days in a juvenile detention facility for their first possession offense and would be held for 21 days for a second. A third offense would require the youth be committed to a juvenile residential program.

Kids who commit certain crimes with a gun such as armed robbery could be held for longer periods if they have to wait for a court hearing.

If their hearing hasn’t happened after 60 days, the court would have to prioritize their case and have a review hearing every seven days until it’s resolved or a child is put on supervised release with an electronic monitor.

This seems pretty reasonable to me, and honestly, given the fact that the vast majority of criminal cases in this country are resolved via plea bargains, I'm not convinced that there are going to be scores of teens saddled with felony records when they turn 18. Most of those charged with simple possession of a firearm as a juvenile are likely to plead down to misdemeanor offenses or be eligible for pre-trial diversion programs, but this would allow those charged with more serious crimes like an armed robbery or shooting to be detained instead of being quickly returned to the streets with an easily-removed GPS monitor attached to their ankle. 

The goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation, not incarceration, but right now too many juvenile justice programs are doing a poor job of both. Just yesterday we covered a story on Bearing Arms Cam & Co featuring a 15-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina who was just arrested for the fourteenth time in little more than a year, including six separate arrests for stealing cars. That's a problem, and the current policies clearly aren't working. I'd argue it would be better for everyone, including this young offender, for him to be confined in a juvenile facility for more than an hour or two, given his prolific and continued criminal behavior. 


Criminal acts should come with consequences, and all too often juvenile offenders are simply skating by after being arrested, convicted, or copping a plea deal. Florida's HB 1181 and Maryland's SB 744 aren't perfect, but they're better than the status quo, and they'd go a long way towards providing the accountability that's rarely a part of the current system.  

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