TAMPA -- Years after Hillsborough created a civil citation program to reduce youth arrests, the county's Juvenile Justice Board will meet later this month to discuss expanding the program.
Currently, law enforcement officers who catch people younger than 18 committing petty theft, trespassing, or several other minor offenses can issue them a civil citation rather than arresting them. But juveniles found with small amounts of marijuana for the first time have no such luck — they face misdemeanor charges and a trip to a Juvenile Assessment Center.
Of the 59 Florida counties with civil citation programs for youth, Hillsborough is the only one that excludes misdemeanor marijuana possession.
But a recent report from the Tallahassee-based Project on Accountable Justice is renewing local discussions about whether to bring Hillsborough's policies in line with the majority of the state. On May 15, the board will meet to discuss the report's findings.
In a draft version of their report, researchers analyzed state-wide data on children who received civil citations and compared it to those who were arrested and went through diversion programs, such as teen court. They found that youth given citations were significantly less likely to commit another offense — four percent of them re-offended compared to nine percent of children who completed diversion programs.
"From a pragmatic perspective, evidence supports the use of civil citation as an effective strategy statewide, even for drug offenses," the draft report states.
Although Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee continues to oppose expanding the civil citation program to low-level marijuana possession, it's possible such a proposal could receive the backing of the State Attorney's Office.
"We don't have any problem with them going into the civil citation program, as long as there's some meat to it," said prosecutor Doug Covington, who oversees misdemeanor and juvenile cases for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Covington said he would like to see a program that still requires juveniles to appear before a judge and be evaluated for drug use.