Pinellas residents lament failure of civil citation bill

Published March 15 2016
Updated March 15 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The children held the signs high as the churchgoers and activists sang Amazing Grace:

401 Trespassing

2,093 Petit Theft

340 Vandalism

In Florida, law enforcement officers can give juveniles civil citations instead of a criminal record for certain first-time misdemeanor offenses.

The numbers on the signs represented all the times that didn't happen last year.

"Giving them an arrest record really haunts them for a long, long time, when they're applying for jobs, scholarships, trying to get into the military," said Peter Andre, deacon of St. Petersburg's Holy Family Catholic Church.

About 100 activists and Pinellas County churchgoers met at Bethel Community Baptist Church on Monday night to pray for the thousands of children they say are "branded for life" with criminal records. They lamented the failure of a state bill that would have guaranteed civil citations for certain first-time offenses.

With pushback from groups such as the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the bill never got to a floor vote.

"If this did pass, this is something I would make a plea to the governor to veto," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

A supporter of pre-arrest diversion programs, Gualtieri said he empathizes with the cause. But he said the bill would hamper effective policing by removing officers' discretion.

Faith and Action for Strength Together, which organized Monday's event, had some attendees share their stories. Johnny Watson spoke about his son, who is on the autism spectrum and was arrested at age 12 for hugging an employee at his middle school.

His son is now 25, bouncing between dishwashing jobs.

"I hope that no kid has to be stigmatized and branded like that," Watson said. "I think it took everything from him."

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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