Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: Civil citations, not arrest, for common misbehavior

The Pinellas County school bus beating that recently made national news is leading to extensive conversations around Florida about how tough we should be on youth offenders.

Three teenagers beat a 13-year-old classmate for being a whistle-blower in an attack that Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano described as "savage, premeditated, vicious, brutal and utterly inexcusable."

Romano's larger point was this was not an ordinary schoolyard fight or a dispute over a girl. In other words, this was not common youth misbehavior.

Certainly, the school bus beating should carry serious consequences for those involved. But it would be a mistake to say that such incidents point to the need for being tougher on all youth, regardless of the misbehavior.

That type of thinking is counterproductive, and the success of Florida's "civil citation" initiatives proves that a more thoughtful approach is the right course to take.

A civil citation is an alternative to arrest for youth who commit misdemeanors that qualify as common youth misbehavior. Civil citations are a pre-arrest effort growing in part due to the leadership of Wansley Walters, the secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, who has made the use of civil citations a top priority.

Too often in the past few years, common youth misbehavior in Florida has resulted in an arrest. This could be petty theft that involves a 13-year-old girl stealing a key chain from a surf shop on a dare by her friends. Or it could be a charge of battery resulting from a shoving match between two boys over a girl where no one is injured. Such common youth misbehavior as possession of alcohol, vandalism with limited damage or disrupting a school event also sometimes results in arrests.

In fact, last year approximately 20,000 Florida youth were arrested for misbehavior that years ago simply resulted in being sent to the principal's office or being sent home.

But with civil citation, law enforcement in nearly all Florida counties (except Miami-Dade and Broward) can decide whether to make an arrest or to issue the youth a civil citation. The use of civil citations is limited only to common youth misbehavior and excludes serious misdemeanors, felonies and sex-related offenses.

Part of the civil citation process involves mental health assessments to determine the propensity to become a repeat offender. If youth are at risk to reoffend, they are mandated counseling specific to their offense. Community service hours, letters of apology and other consequences appropriate to such misbehavior are also required. And once a youth receives a civil citation, the next offense will result in an arrest.

Of youth who have been issued civil citations in Florida since 2010, only 6 percent have reoffended, while 13 percent of youth arrested for misdemeanors in that time frame have reoffended. So it's clear that making an arrest for something that is civil citation-eligible actually increases the chances the youth will reoffend.

Effective civil citation programs generate three key outcomes: increasing public safety, improving youth outcomes and saving taxpayer money. The Tampa Bay area has two of the state's better performing programs: Civil citation is used by Pinellas County in 71 percent of eligible incidents, while Hillsborough County uses it in 50 percent of eligible incidents.

But reports about violent acts like the school bus beating could conceivably cause counties to frown on the use of pre-arrest diversion programs like civil citations. That would be a mistake.

Violent acts like the school bus beating are serious crimes that are not common misbehavior and therefore aren't eligible for civil citations. Let's not confuse the two types of offenses. Doing so could negatively impact the civil citation process, which has been shown as a proven way to help Florida youth not become repeat offenders.

Joe Clark has served as president of the Eckerd Family Foundation, which has supported the planning and implementation of civil citation programs in Florida, as well as research and interventions that lead to better outcomes for youth coming into the juvenile justice system. Dewey Caruthers is a St. Petersburg-based consultant to Florida communities in the design and implementation of civil citation programs, and is working with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice to create a state model for civil citation programs through a grant from Eckerd Family Foundation.

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