Now that state law requires every judicial circuit in Florida to have an arrest diversion program for juveniles accused of low-level crimes, the next step is to ensure law enforcement agencies have policies that lean toward diversion and create robust training programs.
That's according to a study released Tuesday aiming to be a how-to-guide for jurisdictions forming new programs or revamping their existing ones under the new law, which goes into effect July 1.
The fourth annual Stepping Up: Florida's Top Juvenile Pre-Arrest Diversion Efforts report included takeaways based on interviews and assessments of the agencies and counties — including Pinellas, Miami Dade and Monroe — that use diversion over arrest most often.
"We talk a lot about not being tough on crime, rather being smart on crime," said the study's author, Dewey Caruthers, of the St. Petersburg-based Caruthers Institute. "But what does that mean?"
The diversion programs typically work like this: if a kid is accused of a low-level offense, such as shoplifting or disorderly conduct, a cop can issue a civil citation instead of arresting them. The child would then go through an assessment and be paired with programs tailored to their needs.
The study, which looked at data from last year, emphasizes research that shows the programs strengthen public safety, improve youth outcomes and save money. It was supported by a broad group of nonpartisan organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and James Madison Institute.
The statewide usage rate — or the proportion of juveniles eligible under Florida law who are funneled into diversion programs — increased to 59 percent, 6 percentage points higher than the year before. While Florida leads the nation in juvenile pre-arrest diversion, there are several counties without programs. The study's authors and supporters hope the new legislation will spark more participation.
Under the new law, each judicial circuit must create a program, but it's up to individual agencies to opt into it.
"Our hope and expectation is that it will increase utilization," said Scott McCoy, senior policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Pinellas County continued to outperform the state with a 93 percent usage rate, along with Miami-Dade at 95 percent and Monroe at 97 percent.
Two counties that were among the state's worst performers last year — Duval and Hillsborough — saw improvements after implementing new programs last summer.
Duval's rate went from 27 in 2016 to 90 percent in the first quarter of this year and virtually eliminated a previous racial disparity in youth arrests, underscoring that with higher utilization comes more equitable outcomes, Caruthers said.
Hillsborough jumped from 37 percent in 2016 to 50 last year to 60 in the first quarter of this year. The county's new sheriff, Chad Chronister, and state attorney, Andrew Warren, have worked to expand the program, but it still leaves out 13 offenses that are eligible in other counties and isn't open to repeat offenders.
"They still have a limited number of offenses that are eligible versus Pinellas where pretty much all misdemeanors are eligible," said Michelle Morton, juvenile justice policy coordinator of the ACLU of Florida.
In interviews Tuesday, both Chronister and Warren said they're open to widening the program, particularly when it comes to second- and third-time offenders and domestic violence cases. The report zeroes in on household violence, or offenses against household members such as parents and siblings. It notes that Hillsborough and Orange are responsible for 20 percent of those youth arrests.
Warren and Chronister said before they include those offenders, they need to figure out a place to house them while they cool off.
"My hope is to expand it again," he said. "I just want to make sure we're doing it wisely."
Warren noted that Hillsborough tracks its own utilization rate based on the offenses allowed within its own program. That rate is about 83 percent for the period between Aug. 1, its start date, and May 31.
"It shows that law enforcement has embraced the use of the citations, that they're being used effectively in Hillsborough County," he said. "We know there's work to be done to expand the use of the citations, but keep in mind this is something that started" less than a year ago.
Contact Kathryn Varn at email@example.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.