Hillsborough Co. law enforcement, court system team up to reform juvenile justice system

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Hillsborough County is taking a bold new step in reforming its juvenile justice system.

Instead of being arrested, juveniles caught committing most misdemeanors will now be a given a civil citation.

The Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program began August 1. It is part of a partnership between the county’s law enforcement agencies and the court system.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren calls the current system dysfunctional, if not broken, and admits the old way simply wasn’t working.

“It’s not a free pass and that’s what we want to make very clear,” said Col. Donna Lusczynski with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

The program will help teenagers who find themselves in trouble with the law for the very first time. It’s designed to scare them straight so they won’t break the law continuously.

“I mean it gives people a second chance,” said Tampa Assistant Police Chief Mark Hamlin. “It gives officers and deputies some discretion to do the right thing by a child.”

Most misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting, pot possession and resisting arrest qualify. The juveniles will not qualify if they are a threat to public safety, and will need to meet certain conditions like meeting with a case worker, going to treatment, counseling and community service. If they complete it, the case is closed with no charges and no record.

“And not have that on their permanent record so that they could seek employment, they could go to the military, go to college and not be questioned with a criminal history in their background,” Col. Lusczynski said.

If there’s no parent or role model, community policing will come in.

“The officers are assigned the same neighborhoods every day and they start developing relationships with juveniles and sometimes they see they’re going down the wrong path and they begin mentoring them,” Assistant Chief Hamlin said.

The program also has financial incentives. It costs $400 to get into the citation program. Prosecuting the case costs around $5,000 and then it’s about $55,000 a year to keep them locked up.

“By not going to court, by not having officers and deputies pulled off the street and going to court, it can save us money for there but that money then has to be redirected to the services to make sure that the kids get what we need,” Col. Lusczynski said.

“If this program works for that certain child, it’s going to be invaluable,” said Assistant Chief Hamlin.

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