Tampa Bay law enforcement gives first-time juvenile offenders a break

TAMPA — First-time juvenile offenders may face consequences for committing minor crimes in Hillsborough County. They may even face their parents. But, as of this month, they likely won't face arrest.

The county's four law enforcement agencies have quit arresting kids suspected in any of nine misdemeanor offenses — including petty theft, simple battery and alcohol possession — if the incident was the suspect's first brush with the law.

The new approach, which to some may feel like a decades-old approach, allows officers to fill out paperwork and call parents instead of locking up young suspects. The model encourages apologies, counseling and community service. It wagers that some kids will learn from mistakes.

Prosecutors expect thousands of teens each year to avoid a trip to the Juvenile Assessment Center.

"The whole idea in the juvenile system is to rehabilitate the child before they become an adult," said prosecutor Doug Covington, who oversees misdemeanor and juvenile cases for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

Juvenile pre-arrest diversion programs are taking hold statewide, partly in response to changing law. Hillsborough's took shape in the Juvenile Justice Task Force, created in March 2010 at the urging of County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who had studied the arrests of children.

His research showed that 70 percent of the kids arrested in Hillsborough County were picked up for, in his words, "doing something stupid," largely nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.

Beckner said that was due in part to a zero-tolerance wave in the juvenile justice system after a series of shocking high-profile crimes committed by minors in the 1990s.

"I think, as a reaction to that, we criminalized every offense," Beckner said, including matters that might have been handled with a phone call to a parent in the past.

"This program holds youths accountable for their actions while giving them an opportunity to become a productive citizen and get them on the right path."

Supporters say the policy will save money and result in swifter punishment because cases won't have to go through the court system.

Minors will get a second chance to avoid a criminal record, which could help them when they apply for jobs or college, said Tampa police Cpl. Kert Rojka, who serves on the county's Juvenile Justice Task Force.

"It gives them the opportunity to modify their behavior and make better decisions," Rojka said.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office have cut first-time juvenile offenders a break for several years. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office has had a similar program for at least 15 years, said spokesman Kevin Doll.

Beginning July 1, a change in state law will require every Florida county to offer a program aimed at helping juveniles avoid arrest records. The measure was sponsored by Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota.

Law enforcement officers will still have the discretion to arrest some first offenders. That could be useful if a deputy suspects the child has committed other crimes, said Hillsborough sheriff's Col. Greg Brown.

Also, each county has the ability to tailor its list of eligible crimes. For example, Hillsborough limits leniency to nine misdemeanors: theft below $300, criminal mischief, trespassing, simple battery/assault, violation of local ordinances, disorderly conduct, disruption of a school function, affray, or simple alcohol possession without intoxication.

However, in Pasco and Pinellas, a minor could offend with a third-degree felony and still avoid arrest.

Though it appears teens will be getting a free pass for certain offenses, supporters say the program is not soft on crime.

Juveniles who commit misdemeanors for the first time often don't see jail time anyway. Their punishment has typically included paying restitution, doing community service and writing apology letters — penalties incorporated into the arrest avoidance program, said Rojka.

"We're not turning a blind eye," he said. "The only thing that's going to change is: Do they go to (the Juvenile Assessment Center) or do they go home with their parent?

"And I'm sure some would prefer JAC."

Times staff writers Bill Varian and Kim Wilmath contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay law enforcement gives first-time juvenile offenders a break 06/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 12:58am]

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