TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – There’s widespread agreement between lawmakers, law enforcement and child advocates that the state can do more to help juveniles who make stupid mistakes to stay out of trouble and avoid a criminal record that could follow them the rest of their lives.
But what approach it should take is still a matter of disagreement.
“Everybody’s heart is absolutely in the right place wanting to decriminalize being a youth in Florida, it’s just a matter of how to go about it,” said Mary Slapp, vice president of Teen Court of Sarasota, a juvenile diversion program in which offenders are tried by other teenagers and sentenced to community service.
There are two bills moving through the Legislature aimed at helping young offenders by getting them into diversion programs, like teen court, after they’ve committed their first misdemeanor crime.
A Senate bill would mandate that law enforcement issue a civil citation after a first juvenile arrest for a list of specific misdemeanors and a House bill would automatically expunge a youth’s arrest record after a diversion program is completed.
All sides agree the expansion of civil citation programs around the state has helped keep youth from committing more crimes, but tinkering with the program to improve it is where it gets complicated.
Republican Sen. Anitere Flores said the program has been inconsistent from county to county and she points to statistics that show civil citations are issued instead of arrest in only little more than half the cases where youth are eligible for them. According to Department of Juvenile Justice statistics, 8,831 youths eligible for civil citations were arrested, while 9,696 were issued citations.
“That’s a lot of kids,” she said. “Having the lack of uniformity means that some kids are getting a second chance and a whole bunch of other kids aren’t.”
Her bill requires civil citations in cases like alcohol possession, battery, trespass, theft, prowling, resisting an officer without violence and others. State statistics show that about 4 percent of youths who go through the civil citation program commit crimes again.
Republican Rep. Larry Ahern also believes in the civil citation program, but he doesn’t believe in forcing mandates on law enforcement. His bill would try to help first-time juvenile offenders while allowing police officers the discretion to decide when a citation is appropriate. As well as expunging records, it would legally allow people who’ve completed diversion programs to deny the arrest ever occurred when applying for a job, housing or the like.
It also would apply to any misdemeanor, not just a limited list.
“The record that follows a juvenile through their adulthood over a stupid mistake was a big part of the equation, so how do you eliminate that?” Ahern said.
The Florida Sheriff’s Association is backing the Ahern bill and opposed to the Flores bill. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cited several hypothetical scenarios where arrests would be more appropriate then a civil citation, such as a drunken teenager on a beach creating a disturbance and resisting officers, or a teenager prowling in a backyard who is clearly about to break into a home.
Gualtieri said the sheriffs worked with Ahern on the different approach.
“We have offered something that absolutely takes care of the problem, what does the mandate do that our solution doesn’t do?” Gualtieri said.
While Slapp said civil citation is a good tool, she believes neither bill addresses problems with a lack of flexibility in the current program, such as a limit on three citations. She also said there are certain felony situations that don’t qualify for a civil citation, but where a diversion program would be more appropriate than an arrest, such as when a youth who takes a joyride on a golf cart doesn’t realize it’s a felony motor vehicle theft.
That’s what happened to Katy McBrayer. She was a straight A student and well-behaved at 14 when she started dating an 18-year-old who introduced her to drugs. She started making bad decisions, skipping school and staying away from home. Then she was caught driving a golf cart off of a school’s property. Neither the Flores nor Ahern bill would have applied in her case because it was a felony.
She got in trouble again, for burglary and marijuana possession, and was allowed the option of going to teen court rather than to trial.
She mended her relationship with her parents, went to night school and ended up earning a college scholarship.
“Teen court 100 percent saved my life,” said McBrayer, 30, who now serves on the Teen Court of Sarasota executive board.
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