Florida House moves to reduce youth arrests

A House bill would give more discretion to law enforcement to keep young offenders out of jail.

There are
other solutions to youth crime, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said.
There are other solutions to youth crime, Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said.
Published March 30 2015
Updated March 31 2015

TALLAHASSEE — A Florida House panel on Monday gave its overwhelming support to a proposal seeking to reduce youth arrests by expanding civil-citation programs.

The 11-1 vote in the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee came on the same day St. Petersburg city officials rolled out a new "Second Chance" program to steer young people away from the criminal justice system.

"It appears to me that all across this state, people are realizing we should not criminalize, we should not have knee-jerk reactions and make arrests when there are more appropriate consequences," state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg said.

Civil-citation programs, which exist in 59 of Florida's 67 counties, provide police officers with an alternative to arresting young people. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties are among those who operate such programs.

Under current law, officers can issue a civil citation or prescribe community service to young people who are first-time misdemeanor offenders. The proposal under consideration (HB 99) would extend the program to young people who have already been in trouble.

It would also give officers the option to call the young person's parent or give a verbal warning instead.

The plan won praise Monday from law enforcement officials, attorneys, social workers and the state Parent Teacher Association.

"Many of us have programs in our counties that have existed for a long time and are very successful," said Nancy Daniels, the public defender for Florida's 2nd Judicial Circuit. "They have very low recidivism rates."

But a spokeswoman for the Florida Retail Federation cautioned that the measure might encourage leaders of retail theft rings to recruit young adults.

"We support the goals of this bill," lobbyist Samantha Padgett said. "People should not have to pay the rest of their lives for mistakes they made when they were juveniles. … Our concern with this bill rests with the fact that it gives unlimited opportunity to participate in the civil-citation program."

Rouson, who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, said he would work with representatives from the retail industry to address their concerns.

Only one member of the panel voted against the proposal: Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando.

"You can't have a system that allows kids to never have consequences," Eisnaugle said. "At some point, there's got to be an end to the civil-citation program."

Lawmakers in the House and Senate had considered stronger language that would have required every county to have a civil-citation program. But they backed off the idea at the urging of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Last week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told a Senate panel that some counties prefer diversion programs, such as teen courts.

"I'm a big believer that law enforcement needs to retain discretion," he said.

The sheriffs association is otherwise supportive of the bill and is working with the sponsors to make improvements moving forward.

State lawmakers weren't the only elected officials in Florida discussing juvenile justice on Monday.

Earlier in the day, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman visited the J.W. Cate Recreation Center to announce a new program that will give young offenders the option to work eight hours in a city park instead of being processed through the juvenile justice system. Young people who commit crimes involving sex or guns will not be eligible to participate.

Kriseman said that more than 1,400 young people were arrested for misdemeanors in St. Petersburg last year. About 43 percent would have been eligible for the program.

"Successful redirection will help create a safer community and contribute to a healthier economy," he said in a statement. "And for our children, early interventions and structured consequence like Second Chance can dramatically change their future."