TAMPA — First-time offenders who commit certain minor crimes as juveniles in Hillsborough County may avoid a criminal conviction by completing a civil citation program, starting Aug. 1.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced an agreement Thursday between law enforcement agencies and the courts, which expands the use of civil citations.
"We've tried arresting and prosecuting kids for just about everything, including minor, nonviolent first-time offenses," Warren said. "It simply hasn't worked."
Examples of such crimes include petty theft, battery, misdemeanor marijuana possession, resisting arrest without violence and carrying a concealed weapon.
Thirteen other misdemeanor crimes — including domestic battery, committing a lewd and lascivious act and driving under the influence — won't be eligible.
Pinellas County has had a program in place for more than 20 years. From June 2016 through May of this year, 92 percent of youths who had contact with law enforcement in Pinellas County were issued civil citations, according to Florida Department of Juvenile Justice numbers.
"It's something that is good for kids and good for the community," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "People make mistakes and they can learn their lesson and not be saddled with something that can be an impediment to their future success."
Hillsborough's agreement gives law enforcement officers discretion in issuing citations for certain offenses, though it specifically states that there is a "presumption" that citations will be issued to eligible juveniles.
The program is intended to prevent juveniles from developing criminal records over misdemeanor conduct and becoming entangled in the justice system.
Warren announced it at a Thursday morning news conference that also included Public Defender Julianne Holt, Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta and representatives from the county's law enforcement agencies.
Warren called it "an important first step" in improving the local juvenile justice system, which he characterized as "dysfunctional, if not broken." He noted the fiscal benefits of such programs as opposed to prosecutions. He also alluded to a study last year that showed Hillsborough trails other Florida counties in its use of civil citations for youth.
Kids who receive the citations will, with permission of their parents, enter the Juvenile Diversion Program through the court administrator's office. Depending on the circumstances, they may receive sanctions such as community service, restitution, special classes or substance abuse treatment.
Those who complete the program will avoid criminal charges or convictions. Those who don't could face prosecution.
"As law enforcement, we recognize that juveniles make minor offenses and it's not something that should be held against their entire life," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski, who attended Thursday's news conference. "However, it's not a free pass. As law enforcement, we recognize that juveniles still have to accept accountability for their actions."
The State Attorney's Office will track the number of citations that are issued, who is receiving them and the outcome of the cases before assessing whether to expand it to second- and third-time offenders, Warren said.
Thursday's announcement marked the fulfillment of a campaign promise Warren made when he ran for office last year.
Times staff writer Laura Morel contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.