Children in Prison: Chat With Hank Coxe and Gray Thomas

January 12, 2014 31 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Interview with Hank Coxe and Gray Thomas on the sad state of our juvenile detention systems.

Video Interview filmed in partnership with Post Newsweek and
Produced by Stephen Dare and Arash Kamiar
Edited by Stephen Dare and Devlin Mann
Post Production in cooperation with DVA
Metro Theme Music composed by Darren Davis


Stephen Dare:  Hi, this is Stephen Dare and Arash Kamiar at, and today we are joined by a couple of very prominent attorneys here in Jacksonville to talk about the issue of juveniles in the adult criminal justice system.
Hank Coxe and Gray Thomas, you guys have been involved with this issue for a while, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better, does it?

Hank Coxe:  If the question is, is the treatment of juveniles in the adult criminal justice system getting any better, not in Jacksonville. Not in Florida.

Stephen Dare:  What seems to be the basic problem? I think that most people, you know, when they think about this issue, I don't think they do. I think they think about it in response to headlines. It's headlines about a twelve year old killing somebody and then being sentenced as an adult, and that is literally all the thought that most people give it. So, what is actually happening? Why is it a change from the past?

Hank Coxe:  I think you have to look, and I'll defer to Gray, too, but I think you have to look at what's happened in the last ten years or so. Where the national medical community, the researchers, the scientists, the experts have now realized that a child's brain, and the frontal lobe of the brain that decides all decision making hasn't developed to anything close to what an adult has. So the U.S. Supreme Court says “Well, if that's true, do we treat children the same way we treat adults?” and their answer was “No, you can't.”

Arash Kamiar:  So what happened? Where was the switch? If the Supreme Court has said “No,” why are we now, how can a judge finally say, “This thirteen-year-old is thirty?”

RT:  That's the 64,000 dollar question.

Arash Kamiar:  I don't have that kind of money.


Gray Thomas:  The law has yet to catch up with the science, in terms of recognizing that. I mean the sentencing schemes, that apply to adult sentences, when applied to juveniles who don't have the maturity and the judgment and the brain development, is simply is putting an apple in the basket of oranges. They don't relate well to each other.

Stephen Dare:  And let's bring this down to what's actually happening. So, a twelve or fifteen year old kid commits a crime, and then instead of going through the juvenile justice system, they are committed over to the adult justice system, and they face life imprisonment, and they face twenty and thirty year sentences and so you have a fifteen or twelve year old that goes from fifth grade to the big house. They're quartered in adult facilities, and of course you know if you're reading along they're also being raped, and that's an unintentional part of their sentence, from the time that they are fifteen until they are twenty-five, thirty-five, forty-five, when they are let go. Is that fair?

Hank Coxe:  You have to be careful that you're not mixing two totally separate issues here. No one is saying that a fifteen-year-old is not responsible for what the fifteen year old did. No one is saying that the twelve-year old doesn't understand right from wrong. The issue is how does the criminal justice system treat them when the criminal justice system knows, or should know, that that child's brain has not developed in the area where you appreciate the consequences of of what you're doing. You have the ability to resist influences of others, you have far less impulse control, and that's what the whole issue is all about. Do you treat the fourteen year old the same way you treat the thirty year old? The U.S. Supreme Court and the experts medically across the country say you can't do that. It's not civilized to do that.

Gray Thomas:  There's a huge difference between just the basic notion of understanding the difference between  right and wrong, versus having an appreciation of the consequences of one's conduct at the time you engage in that conduct.

Arash Kamiar:  So what you guys are saying essentially is like, it's not an issue of being tough on crime, it's an issue about redeeming the kid? About fixing them?

Hank Coxe:  If that's possible. So do you just warehouse a fourteen year old for forty years in an adult prison? Or do you try to determine what precipitated the problem? Are there alternatives to that? It may be incarceration for some period of time.

Arash Kamiar:  But we don't have time for that. Do we have time to take a kid and uh...

Hank Coxe:  If you've got time to spend the money it takes to warehouse people in this country and this state, you've got the time to do that. This country leads the world, continues to lead the world, in incarcerating its own people, at astronomical cost. There's got to be some of that money available to look at these kids.

Gray Thomas:  Oh, I don't think the jury is at all in on a conclusion that we're safer from monstrous incarceration rates. Look at many other countries with far lower incarceration rates that are much safer.

Stephen Dare:  But it's keeping us from going out in public and having random shooters killing us, isn't it?

Gray Thomas:  No.

(all laugh)

Stephen Dare:  Now, in going back to this issue, like, you know, I think before we talk about how we got to tough on crime equals locking people up without any measurable effect to the society around it, the costs. So, you know we were looking at a report not very long ago that even here locally at the Duval County jail, it costs them, once you factor in all the costs, 750 dollars a day per prisoner. And this is prisoner who hasn't been found guilty yet, this doesn't add in the cost of maximum security prisons, it doesn't takee in the cost of tracking them and their long term health care. For 750 dollars a day, to take a kid, 750 bucks a day, you could quarter them at the Omni Hotel downtown...

Arash Kamiar:  Hire two people to watch over him.

Stephen Dare:  A chauffeur. They could have a top of the line Porsche on a rental, daily.

Arash Kamiar: And Hank for his personal attorney.

Stephen Dare:  He could get a massage, and you could probably afford a massage with a happy ending for their counselor, if you'd assigned him a case worker. And it's a prodigious amount of money. Why are we spending that money on putting them in prisons instead of in a rehabilitative or counseling environment?

Gray Thomas:  That's exactly the point. It is far less expensive to help someone, than to lock them up involuntarily. There are, as Hank said a minute ago, there are people who need to be incarcerated for the protection of society, or potentially other reasons, maybe that's the only way to help them, with a  certain small class of people.  But it is a lot less expensive to help somebody on the front end than to incarcerate them on the back end. If we don't take care of our children when they are children, then we are dooming them and ourselves to the consequences of kids with no help becoming adults who are then, at the very least, unproductive members of society.

Stephen Dare:  You know, every time we get a discussion about this on the forums, any time there is a teenager who is killed by cops, or is caught in the middle of a crime, we have a flood of commenters, some of them who are normally intelligent people, talking about maybe death is the actual outcome for when a kid commits a crime, and you know, it doesn't seem like there's a constituency for any type of fairness when it comes to the treatment of crime in our society. Do you guys, has that gotten worse in your careers?

HK:  I think it actually in some states has improved,  but the only reason it's improved in my judgment, is because of cost. People are so sensitive to the expense right now that they're desperately searching for ways to reduce costs. And finally somebody started looking at the prison systems in this country, the federal, the state and everything else. We can cut here, we can cut there and people who run for office use this state as an example. I joked with Gray about it. If you run for the Mosquito Control District you gotta be tough on crime. You gotta promise those constituents you're gonna be tough on crime. You run for the school board, you gotta be tough, if you run for anything, you gotta be tough on crime. And that developed in the late eighties and early nineties, because public safety has an emotional appeal to people. You get the headline that says this person, this fourteen year old is dangerous, he did something horrible. Everyone goes well, they need to lock him up.  Well, that's the human reaction in this day and age. You gotta lock em up.

Stephen Dare:  It's an incredibly expensive infrastructure for funneling both adults and children into a correctional facility, and I wanted to ask you guys, do we have the capacity or the facilities to treat people in a fair way, or to even treat the juveniles? Do we have dependency? Do we have counseling? Is that even available here locally, or have we diverted all the resources towards correction?

Gray Thomas:  Well, that is a big problem is that the resources have been focused on the punitive end, the corrections end. They call it corrections, it's something of a misnomer, I would say. And we make sure to fund policing, which is necessary but a lot of this comes at a cost of the rehabilitative efforts--the dependency system, foster care, is woefully inadequate in many ways. There are so many resources that could be available to help children that are under-funded, particularly at points in time like this, where the federal state and local governments are in financial crisis.

Stephen Dare:  And aren't they in financial crisis because they're spending 750 bucks a day minimum on things like this?

Gray Thomas:  Well, could be part of it. I'm sure it's part of the problem.

HK:  And that's why people are revisiting how much is being spent on corrections

Arash Kamiar:  I think I read in Duval County about 43 percent of the children who are arrested are arrested for misdemeanors, like small possession of marijuana, schoolyard fights that sort of thing so they're being locked in a system that can potentially impact the rest of their life. What are strategies around that to loop them out of the system?

Hank Coxe:  Well, I think, and again I'll defer to Gray, one of the debates that's going on in this community right now is intervention and not throwing the kid into the criminal justice system, because once that happens, that kid carries a label. Gone are the days, and people still believe its true, if I go into the juvenile system as an eleven year old or a fifteen year old, that that's all confidential and that doesn't follow me. Those days are gone. It's following you.

Arash Kamiar:  Really?

Hank Coxe: So you apply to college, you try to go into the military, you try to get a job, all these things follow you, so the idea is give these kids some intervention, work with them and keep them out of the criminal justice system and then deal with that narrow number that can't survive that process.

Arash Kamiar:  So how do...?

Hank Coxe:  It's not going to be perfect.

Arash Kamiar:  Do you know how we do that, do we have an idea?

Gray Thomas:  Well, certainly. I mean, there's a device in the adult system called a “notice to appear” where you don't have to take somebody to jail. They don't have to miss two days of work. Or in the child system, there’s a debate about shouldn't for at least low-level offenses, we be issuing civil citations where there can be, there certainly will be a consequence, but the child doesn't miss school. The child's parents don't have to miss work in order to go to court with their child, that for these low-level, especially first offense situations, you are able to take a far less costly approach, less costly both to the system, and to the child, and to the child's family.

Hank Coxe:  I've never said this publicly before.

Arash Kamiar: Now's the time.

Hank Coxe:  I've always believed that juvenile court should begin at 3:00 or 3:30 in the afternoon. It doesn't. It begins at 8:30 or 9:00 in the morning. The child misses class. The parent misses work. Start court after school's out, so he doesn't miss any classes. And, we all remember school, the first class is English, the next class is history, the next class is math, so if you make me go to three court appearances, I've missed three English classes three history classes and three math classes. The same ones every time. I've never understood that.

Stephen Dare:  I've been through this entire process when I was a teenager. You know, I was a runaway, I came from a fairly abusive background so I lived in Bishop Cottage over at the Baptist home for children. And my sister and I spent time in the Youth Crisis Center back when it was still the Transient Youth Center. And you know there's that tracking within the system between delinquency and dependency. And you know my sister and I were very lucky in that we had other alternatives. Our home life wasn't so great, but we had an extended network of support that kind of funneled and redirected us. But I spent two months at Duval House over on Phillips Highway. I can’t tell you what happened to the rest of the kids that I saw. You know, I saw a twelve-year old kid come in because he had run away from home with his best friend, and then a few years later he was being tried as an adult. And he's dead now. You know that kid ended up dead in jail, I think at Raiford. There was no good outcome to any of that, and I wonder where did we get off the rails where, you know, it's like it's so easy to say well, ten, twenty, thirty, you're out. One, two, three, you're out. When did that become our standard of justice and when did we take away the responsibility of the judges and the attorneys to work out what is an equitable case-by-case disposition?

Hank Coxe:  Let me ask a question. I've got three children. They're not in prison. You may have children, you've got children, not in prison. So, why do we care? The answer to your question is do people in this day and age care if it's not the children they have, or they know, or the neighbors' kids. Does anybody, I mean not does anybody, there's certainly plenty of people that do, but do enough people care about children they don't know or never met but recognize that they're all children of the same society and that may sound like some noble statement, but that's true. That is genuinely true. Is it an investment we have to make for all children? We don't know. Or is it not my problem? Not in my neighborhood.

Stephen Dare:  Well, what;s the answer to this, you guys are involved in efforts to bring awareness to the issue, are you guys working to change the issue?

Hank Coxe:  Well, you elect us to the legislature we could a get good jump start on it.

Stephen Dare:  Are you running?

Hank Coxe: No. No. Noooo. No. I'm afraid I couldn't say all the right things to get elected.


Hank Coxe:  I think, and Gray may disagree, what some of us who've been involved, several of us were involved in representing a 12-year-old here in Jacksonville, a 16-year-old prior to that in Jacksonville, is just to keep the issue out there. As long as we can do  something that gets part of people's consciousness that it is an issue, and they talk about it and consider it, and go back to what I said a moment ago, people would stop, or more people would stop and say, “You know, how kids I don't know behave can affect all of us.” Affect us in cost, and the quality of life, risk, safety, they're all issues to all of us.

Gray Thomas:  And when those kids grow up, it will affect all of us, as well.

Stephen Dare:  Oh yeah, because they come out at 45, with the experience of 14 through 45 in prison.

Hank Coxe:  That's right.

Arash Kamiar:  How is JSO responding to this? Are they aware that there's maybe an issue here?

Hank Coxe:  I think there, if I recall correctly, there was a compact signed by the sheriff and the chief judge and the public defender, committing to this idea of intervention--not putting kids in jail, issuing notices to appear, and we're not talking about a 15-year-old shoots somebody in a robbery and give him notice to appear, not talking about that, we're talking about those kids who can be targeted as not being necessarily a problem down the road if you do the right thing at the front end. So the sheriff signed off on that compact, and I understand he made a commitment that...

Arash Kamiar:  You think that means anything?

Hank Coxe:  (sighs)  Should have the sheriff sitting here. I mean, see what's changed as a result of that. I couldn't speak for the sheriff.

Arash Kamiar:  Okay.

Stephen Dare:  So, really, this is the beginning of a conversation that we need to have, we don't know what the parameters of the change are, or the mechanics of it. We don't know how to proceed, we have some good idea, but this is all about understanding that it's time to change. Yes?

Hank Coxe:  Right. And just go back to the 12-year-old that several of us collectively represented...

Stephen Dare:  Tragic case.

Arash Kamiar:  Who?

Hank Coxe:  Christian Fernandez. If you track his life up to the age of twelve, and the events that led to it, you're talking about somebody physically abused, sexually abused, who reported a stepfather for physically abusing him, whose response to that was to go home and kill himself in front of the two siblings. All those things. where was the intervention on that? Why didn't somebody say,”Hey, time out. Child, you were born to a mother who got pregnant at the age of eleven. She was twelve when she gave birth to you.” Where was everybody through all that, to say this this whole event that got all the attention could have been prevented?

Gray Thomas:  And when Hank says everybody, that means everybody. Because, how about the medical personnel when his mother gave birth to him at that young age? How about all of the law enforcement contacts, the Department of Children and Families contacts that showed up, but the follow through wasn't there?

Stephen Dare:  Oh, it's to hell with that, but when you commit a crime, thirty years!  What was his original sentence? What was he facing?

Hank Coxe:  He was facing life in prison, as an adult, with no parole. That's what he was facing.

Stephen Dare:  And what was the actual circumstances of that crime?

Hank Coxe:  He had hurt his two-year-old brother, when he was home alone with his brother.

Stephen Dare:  On purpose, or accidentally, or?

Hank Coxe:  No, no, he was roughhousing with him and he hurt him, and he hurt him bad enough to call his mother right away and say “I think he's hurt.” And mother came home right away and,

Gray Thomas:  Didn't know what to do.

Hank Coxe:  Didn't know what to do, so she didn't take the child for medical attention for eight and a half hours, and the injuries had some brain swelling and it just kept going, and...

Stephen Dare:  But come on, she had a child when she was twelve, obviously she had all kinds of time for like, parenting and learning how to do that and the right thing to do in between getting beaten by her husband, right?

Hank Coxe:  How many fourteen year old girls do you know who are in foster care with their two-year-old sons? I mean, that's the whole...

Arash Kamiar:  Plus, how she can she trust the system, or systems that have not been beneficial to her in the least?

Hank Coxe:  Never helped her, any meaningful way.

Stephen Dare:  How did we get to the point where we look at that situation, and we go “Try the kid as an adult.”

Hank Coxe:  Well, if you go back, that reminds me of when I said to a judge in the hearing when he said we, I said “Don't include me in that 'we' because the United States Supreme Court in 2005, 2011 said over and over again, these kids' brains have not developed,

Arash Kamiar:  So then is it unconstitutional? Is it unconstitutional to try a kid as an adult?

Hank Coxe:  It's not unconstitutional.

Arash Kamiar:  Why not? If the Supreme Court has said...

Gray Thomas:  The Supreme has held that it is unconstitutional to impose a mandatory life sentence with no opportunity for release on a juvenile. So the Supreme Court has yet to draw some further lines. They've drawn that distinction in both homicide and non-homicide cases. But there is a lot of evolution left to be done.

Hank Coxe:  What they have said in every case, is you need government to recognize that a child's brain, and the frontal lobe that controls all the decision-making, all the judgment, all the appreciation of consequences is nowhere near as developed as an adult's, so you can't punish that kid the same way you do an adult.

Stephen Dare: And there's medical evidence, and at your TED talk, you actually presented some graphic support that show physically the part of the brain, isn't there. It's not grown yet.

Hank Coxe:  Right. I tell you what, that fourteen-year-old kid can throw a fast ball twice as fast as his father, because his body's developed, every part of his body. A thirteen-year-old girl can have a baby, but it's that frontal lobe and frontal cortex that medical science the last ten or twelve years has said “Time out. We know why that thirteen or fourteen-year-old kid doesn't appreciate the consequences of driving a car 60 miles an hour through the school zone, you might kill somebody.”

Stephen Dare:   Gray, if somebody wants to get involved in this, if they feel passionately about it, I think that a lot of people do, and with our incarceration rates, I mean, it's Florida, it's a pirate state, come on. Everybody knows somebody in jail in this city, and they're related to a cousin that lives out on the Westside somewhere that, you know, everybody has this in their families and in their friend group. How do you get involved in this?

Gray Thomas:  There are all kinds of different ways, I mean, there's the Juvenile Justice Coalition recently formed, there's the Dolores Barr Weaver Policy Center that's focused on young girls. There are opportunities to volunteer for anything from a guardian ad ??? to potentially being a foster parent. So there are certainly the opportunities that are out there.

Stephen Dare:  All right. This is the beginning of a conversation, I can tell. This is, I'm sure, going to spill over to our forums, and hopefully to a larger community discussion. I'm sure Arash and Not Now and Bridge Troll and a few of the people that justice and criminal justice issues are a recurring theme on our forums, I'm sure you guys will join us in this conversation and make it lively as well as informative. Hank, Gray, thank you so much for your good work and thanks for being with us today.