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In a Florida city where kids kill at a terrifying rate, a search for answers

In a Florida city where kids kill at a terrifying rate, a search for answers

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[Photo by tristan_roddis via Flickr.]

Sharron Townsend was a toddler the first time child protective services intervened in his life; someone had reportedly put a cigarette out in his eye. A decade later, the cognitively challenged 12-year-old put a bullet in the brain of a homeless man, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for his crime.

Townsend, unfortunately, isn’t unique in Jacksonville, Florida. In a city that regularly exceeds 100 murders annually, a significant portion of them are committed by juveniles.

Their crimes are heinous. Their backstories are heartbreaking. The system was never equipped to help them.

In 2015-16, the Department of Juvenile Justice reports that nine Jacksonville-area juveniles were arrested for murder — a rate higher than Miami-Dade, and more than the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando areas combined. Of the more than 550 juveniles serving life for homicide in Florida, about 10 percent are from Jacksonville, despite representing less than 5 percent of the state’s population.

The Florida Times-Union wants to know what it is about our city that makes Jacksonville give rise to so many kids who kill before their 18th birthdays.

For the last year, with the support of a fellowship through the John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, I have extensively reported on juvenile life without parole in the Jacksonville-area judicial circuit.

But this project for the 2017 National Fellowship will take a step further and ask: What happened in a child’s life before they picked up a gun and took another person’s life? What things do these vulnerable children have in common? What do their zip codes tell us about their schools, neighborhoods and socioeconomic situation? What were the warning signs adults could have heeded?

And perhaps, most importantly, what can we do to prevent these crimes from ever happening?

[Photo by tristan_roddis via Flickr.]

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