TAMPA — For years, Public Defender Julianne Holt has watched in frustration as Hillsborough County continued to saddle juveniles with criminal records for first-time minor offenses.
Studies have backed up the claim from Holt and others who say the county has lagged behind others in its efforts to keep an arrest from derailing a youngster's future.
But that's changing, Holt told a meeting of the Tiger Bay Club on Friday. Shared philosophies among the State Attorney's Office and local law enforcement agencies are driving a change that makes Holt optimistic for the first time since she was elected more than two decades ago.
"I see an opportunity to work together with the State Attorney's Office and with law enforcement to truly make a change in this community and the lives of our youths that for the last 20 years they haven't really had," Holt said.
More than 120 people packed into a dining hall to hear Holt, State Attorney Andrew Warren, Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta and Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Donna Lusczynski describe what's being done to cut off the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.
The League of Women Voters helped organize the event.
"A majority of people in this country recognize the need for criminal justice reform," said Warren, who campaigned in part on a platform of reform and defeated 16-year incumbent Mark Ober in a stunning upset last November. "Here locally, we are blessed with a public defender and law enforcement partners who recognize the evolving nature of our criminal justice and are on board for the future. Now is the time to act. The pieces are in place. The question is how."
Part of the answer, Warren and Holt agreed, is to ramp up a juvenile citation program to keep an arrest from saddling youths with a record that keeps them out of college and makes potential employers pass them over.
The nonpartisan "Stepping Up 2016" report by the Children's Campaign and several other state and national advocacy groups found that Hillsborough used civil citations over arrests in only 32 percent of eligible cases in 2014-2015. By comparison, Pinellas gave citations 82 percent of the time, the second highest rate in Florida.
Hillsborough started a pilot program to issue citations to juvenile offenders, but Mike Pheneger, past president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, asked Lusczynski why the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office balked on including marijuana possession in the program.
Sheriff David Gee had several concerns, including that drug treatment and counseling programs weren't required and a system wasn't in place to determine whether a youngster had received civil citations in other jurisdictions, Lusczynski replied.
"We just weren't comfortable with the parameters at the time," she said.
Those concerns have since been addressed and the Sheriff's Office is in the process of expanding the program, Lusczynski added.
"Since we've started the possession of marijuana civil citation, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has been flat to the mat on it and has been handing out the civil citations," Holt said. "They are really following through on it . . . and I want to personally thank them."
Warren also has vowed to reduce the number of so-called direct-file cases against juveniles. Florida prosecutors can move minors to adult court without input from judges under the process.
Juvenile justice advocates say the process has little oversight and triggers long-term effects on a child's life, from a lack of proper education and rehabilitation programs in adult lockups to a felony record that fosters trouble with housing, employment and student financial aid.
A 2014 study by Human Rights Watch found Hillsborough has one of the highest rates of direct filing in Florida and leads the state in the number of juveniles sent to adult prisons. The same study detailed racial disparities among juveniles who are charged as adults.
A bill before the Legislature co-sponsored by state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, would prohibit prosecutors from transferring teens ages 16 and 17 to prosecution as adults if they're charged with grand theft, burglary of an unoccupied dwelling and drug possession.
The bill also requires that state attorneys document their decision in ordering adult transfers and allows defendants to request a hearing to determine if they can return to juvenile court.
Many prosecutors oppose the measure, saying it strips them of their ability to deal with repeat offenders. Warren has called it "a good first step."
The panel also acknowledged the justice system's implicit bias toward minorities. Warren said his office is studying past cases to try to pinpoint causes for disparate charges and sentencing recommendations.
"We're trying to see where the problem is along the assembly line of justice," he said. "Identifying the problem will lead us to solving it."
Judge Ficarotta said more diversity in judicial appointments would help, too.
"So the juvenile," Ficarotta said, "walks into the courtroom and sees a face like his or hers."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.