A bill filed Tuesday in the Florida Senate seeks to let low-level juvenile offenders avoid a criminal record that could follow them into adulthood.
Filed by state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the bill would require law enforcement officers to issue civil citations instead of arresting juveniles for 11 misdemeanor offenses ranging from alcohol and marijuana possession to battery, public fighting and disorderly conduct.
For other offenses not named in the bill, an officer could arrest a juvenile but must document why the arrest was warranted. Officers could also issue juveniles a second or third civil citation for subsequent offenses.
The current law gives law enforcement the discretion to arrest juveniles or issue them civil citations, but critics say that means teen offenders across the state face inconsistent punishments. The proposed bill would require each county to design its own youth diversion program, advocates say, but also create one system throughout the state.
"Making it uniform statewide ensures that the justice will be blind across county lines," Flores said. "I think sometimes kids just deserve a second chance."
There's a huge difference between a civil citation and an arrest, especially for a juvenile.
The former requires juveniles to fulfill community service hours as punishment and doesn't leave a paper trail. The latter leaves a criminal record that can follow a child into adulthood and hinder future employment and educational opportunities, and even housing options.
Some counties, such as Pinellas and Flores' home county of Miami-Dade, have successful youth civil citation programs already in place, with 94 percent of juveniles offenders issued civil citations. Statewide, half of juvenile offenders were issued civil citations.
But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has a track record of supporting diversion programs for young offenders and adults, said he will oppose the proposed bill because it's a mandate that would take away discretion from officers.
"I believe, under the right circumstances, we shouldn't do anything that is a barrier or impediment to future success to young people," he said.
However, "not every kid under every circumstance who commits a misdemeanor, even if they don't have any priors, is appropriate for that diversion program," the said.
The sheriff added: "Some need to be charged."
Sixty of Florida's 67 counties have implemented civil citations or similar programs. Two counties are in the process of creating a program, and five small counties offer no such option.
Four counties — Dixie, Hamilton, Holmes and Madison — have programs but have not issued a civil citation to a juvenile in the past 12 months.
The bill is backed by faith-based group Faith in Action Strength Together, which has member congregations across Tampa Bay. The group has pressured legislators to support similar bills that have failed in past years.
"The issue for us is that children all over the state are having their lives destroyed because of childish mistakes," said the Rev. Jean Cooley, a retired pastor of Good Samaritan Church in Pinellas Park who sits on a criminal justice committee for an affiliated statewide group.
"It is unfair because of where they live, which city, which school they go to, what color they are," Cooley said. "And we believe that it is fair and just to apply a standard across the state so that our children have a chance for a future."
A companion bill is expected to be filed in the Florida House by state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.