Children who commit minor crimes can pay for their mistakes for a lifetime — losing a chance to attend college, join the military or obtain credit and a good job. That is unjust to the individuals and a burdensome cost to society, and Hillsborough County is taking the right new approach by giving some juveniles a second chance.
Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren has announced an agreement between law enforcement agencies and the courts that will allow first-time offenders who commit nonviolent crimes as juveniles to be issued civil citations rather than face an arrest and prosecution. Depending on the circumstance, offenders would be required to perform community service, pay restitution, attend counseling or substance-abuse treatment or engage in other programs that seek to correct their behavior.
These programs are nothing new, and Hillsborough has been offering juvenile citations for 12 types of offenses under a pilot program. But Hillsborough had used the program conservatively, limiting its scope and restricting it to first-time offenders, even though the county's statistics showed that 80 percent of those referred to the program in recent years completed it successfully.
The new program, which takes effect Aug. 1, offers civil citations to juvenile offenders for the vast majority of misdemeanors, from trespass and petty theft to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Juveniles not posing an "identifiable" threat to public safety will be presumed eligible, and once issued a citation they will work with a parent or guardian and case worker on sanctions to atone for their acts. Those who complete the program will avoid criminal charges; those who don't would face prosecution. The program will be permanent, and it could be extended later to some second- and third-time offenders.
Hillsborough's approach comes more in line with Pinellas County and other jurisdictions across the country, which have found that civil diversion can steer juveniles away from crime and save communities money in the process. Those accused of crimes involving sexual acts, domestic violence and nearly a dozen other violent offenses are not eligible.
This program promises to hold juveniles accountable, address their behavioral problems and put them on a constructive path without dumping them into the prison pipeline. Officials will track the outcomes of each case to see whether the program is working and how to reform it to get the most bang for the buck. Warren has followed through on a promise he made in last year's election campaign, and the effort is off to a promising start, thanks to the buy-in from Hillsborough's law enforcement agencies and top court officers, including Public Defender Julianne Holt and Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta. This is a smart use of judicial resources that could give some juveniles a fresh opportunity at life while enabling prosecutors and the courts to pursue larger threats to public safety.