The number of youth arrested for low-level crimes like shoplifting, vandalism or possessing marijuana dropped significantly in the last year as counties across the state turned to diversion programs to keep first-time offenders from cycling back into trouble.
But the innovative use of so-called “civil citations,” which replace jail time with programs often involving community service and counseling, is so uneven in Florida that a new report released Monday by the nonpartisan “Stepping Up 2017” gives most of the state an “F” grade.
“The data shows the state is moving in the right direction, but at a slow pace,” said Dewey Caruthers, president of The Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg-based think tank that conducts the annual study. “Many counties also are moving in the right direction, albeit sluggishly.”
For the second year in a row, Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties outperformed the rest of the state by issuing civil citations to 94 percent of all kids caught in low-level crimes, including underage drinking, disorderly conduct, vandalism, loitering, school fights and possession of alcohol or marijuana.
And, for the second year in a row, the counties with the worst record were Duval, Hillsborough and Orange, as they together compromised 24 percent of the more than 8,700 youth arrests in 2016.
The report — the third annual study of its kind by a broad ideological coalition that includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, the James Madison Insitute, the ACLU and several other state and national advocacy groups — builds upon research that shows that when first-time offenders are given alternatives to arrest, they can avoid a criminal record that diminishes their opportunities in school, jobs, housing and when obtaining loans and credit.
By keeping them out of the school-to-prison cycle that too often returns them to a life of crime, the practice also keeps kids out of the state’s juvenile justice commitment programs, the privately run facilities rife with abuse
Civil commitment is also good policy for taxpayers, as it requires fewer law enforcement resources and results in less recidivism, the study concluded. Between July 2013 and December 2016, the state saved between $56 million and $176 million by diverting kids from prison and into civil-citation programs, the study concluded. Every time a youth arrest is avoided and a civil citation is issued instead, taxpayers save between $1,468 and $4,614.
But while Florida’s rate of issuing civil citations to juveniles went up 10 percentage points over last year’s study to 53 percent, only 4 percent of the state’s 67 counties earned an A or B grade, the research found. School districts fared better than counties, with 23 percent earning an A or B grade, they found..
“Decades ago, getting into a fight at school when no one was injured or vandalizing a bathroom wall previously brought consequences like a trip to the principal s office, apologies, shaking hands, or scrubbing the bathroom wall,’’ the report said.
“Today, such common youth misbehavior can result in being arrested — handcuffs, riding in the backseat of a police car, fingerprints, being detained until making bail, and most harmful having a criminal misdemeanor record that will impact employment, housing, loans and postsecondary education for the rest of one s life.”
The conclusions call for immediate policy shifts, the researchers said.
“Given the fact that arresting youth for minor misbehavior is the least effective approach and is counterproductive, our No. 1 recommendation is that every county should be developing a policy in which a use of civil citation is the presumptive norm,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida.
If law enforcement agencies continue to rely on arrests over civil citation, the report suggests that they “should be required to document, justify and obtain supervisory approval” before making the arrest.
Many Florida lawmakers agree. The Florida Senate voted 35-1 in May to require law enforcement agencies to use pre-arrest diversion programs instead of arresting first-time offenders younger than 18. But the legislation died in the final days of the annual session amid fierce opposition from the Florida Sheriffs Association and the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which don’t want law enforcement’s hands tied with a mandatory law.
The authors of the report suggest that in the absence of a mandate, lawmakers in the 2018 session should reward counties with enhanced funding if they agree to adopt a policy of establishing civil citations as the expected norm.
According the data collected from July 2013 through 2016, 38,224 youths have been arrested for “common youth misbehavior.” Of that, more 31,020 have been issued civil citations for qualifying offenses.
Researchers noted that Miami-Dade County, which has been using juvenile civil citations for more than a decade, has a recidivism rate of 3 percent, lower than the state average of 4 percent.
The county used civil citations 94 percent of the time in 2016, while the Miami Dade school district used it 95 percent of the time. There are 20 Miami-Dade County law enforcement agencies that use it 100 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, Pinellas County benefits from the high use of civil citations at the Pinellas County School District, the Pinellas Park Police Department, and the St. Petersburg Police Department, each with a utilization rate of between 97 percent and 98 percent.
By contrast, Hillsborough County used civil citations only 37 percent of the time, up from last year but far behind neighboring Pinellas.
Across the state, white youth had the highest incidence of arrest, with only 50 percent of them receiving civil citation, the report found. Hispanic youth had the highest rate of civil citation, 61 percent, while black youth had a 52 percent rate of civil citation.
Researchers found that Duval County arrested substantially more black youths — 80 percent — than white youths — 64 percent — when the crimes were eligible for a civil citation, “causing a notable racial disparity.”
The report noted, however, that some counties are making progress with Hillsborough and Duval having adopted new policies to expand the use of civil citation.
Florida has become a national leader in pre-arrest diversion, the authors said, with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice becoming a resource for other states.
How do they know that youth given civil citations are less likely to return to prison?
“The recidivism rate for juvenile civil citations has dropped to as low as 4 percent, compared to the recidivism for post arrest diversion that has been as high as 12 percent,’’ the report found.
For seven of the most common youth offenses, when youths are arrested, the recidivism rate doubles.
“There is overwhelming evidence that juvenile civil citations increase public safety, improve youth opportunities, and save taxpayers money,’’ the report concluded.
“Conversely, this evidence shows arrests for common youth misbehavior harm public safety, diminish youth futures, and fleece taxpayers.”