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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Religious group pushing for kids' criminal justice reforms



Activists are bombarding Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, with a letter-writing campaign and planning prayer vigils outside his office, asking him to change a criminal diversion program they say isn’t helping all the kids it’s supposed to.

Their concern: the state’s civil citation program, which allows police to give children community service and access to intervention programs, rather than arrest them and give them a criminal record.

After the Legislature expanded the program — originally a Miami-Dade project — statewide last year, organizations including DART, a coalition of religious groups, say it isn’t being applied fairly in all 67 Florida counties.

The group says it has sent McBurney letters with thousands of signatures, and they’ve planned a prayer vigil at 4 p.m. today across the street from his office to draw attention to the issue.

Tampa Bay is a clear example of that disparity.

DART and the pastors it works with in Tampa are particularly concerned about disparity in how the law is being applied in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. State law allows sheriffs to choose how civil citations are applied in their counties.

That discretion has led to contrasting policies in the Bay area’s largest counties, said Michael Price, the pastor at the St. James AME Church in Tampa. He gave the example of a teenager from Tampa who gets caught committing a misdemeanor, like smoking a small amount of marijuana.

“If he were visiting his grandparents over in Clearwater in Pinellas County and made a mistake that was a misdemeanor crime, he wd be given a civil citation and given a second chance,” Price said. “If he were in his own home county of Hillsborough, he could be arrested and have a criminal record.”

Price and other religious leaders with DART hope they can change state law to require every county in the state to apply civil citations in the same way. They say thousands of juvenile arrests could be avoided, keeping kids out of the criminal justice system for less-serious crimes.

That’s where McBurney comes in. He’s the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and his support is essential for any changes to criminal law in Florida, including a bill (SB 408) proposed by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, that would require police to use civil citations instead of arrests for first-time misdemeanors.

DART is working with the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on a similar committee bill.

“I’m looking at the legal and practical ramifications of making it mandatory in certain circumstances and if that’s something that would be workable,” McBurney said. “But at the same time, you want to leave law enforcement a certain amount of discretion to do what they need to do.”

The Senate bill, filed in October, has still not been heard by a committee.

But Price says it’s an issue worth pursuing on both the statewide and local levels because of how dramatically a criminal record can affect a kid’s future.

“That’s a scar on their record for the rest of their life, even if they never commit another crime again,” he said, “which could affect their opportunity to serve their country in the military, and affect their opportunity for further education beyond high school."

[Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2015 12:37pm]


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