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Pinellas leads Florida in juvenile arrest diversions, while Hillsborough lags, report says

Fifth-annual report notes that Florida leads the nation in juvenile pre-arrest diversion and that its use is growing statewide.
Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties lead the state in keeping youth offenders out of the school-to-prison cycle but, in many parts of the state, law enforcement continues to arrest kids eligible for diversion programs and that’s costing taxpayers. [CARL JUSTE, MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO]

Juveniles caught committing low-level crimes like trespassing or underage drinking continue to face different consequences depending on where in Florida they live, according to a report on pre-arrest diversions released Friday.

Case in point: 97 percent of first-time youthful Pinellas County offenders in fiscal year 2018-19 were sent to diversion programs rather than being arrested. In Hillsborough, 56 percent were diverted, the report noted.

“Pinellas, over the last five years, has a pattern where it’s become the best in the state. It’s the model,” said Dewey Caruthers of the St. Petersburg-based Caruthers Institute, which issued the report. “Right across the bridge, (Hillsborough’s) just sorely under performing.”

The idea of arrest diversion programs is to allow children involved in “common youth misbehavior” to avoid criminal records that could follow them throughout their lives. Research has shown such programs save taxpayers money and reduce the chance that a child will offend again, the Caruthers report noted.

In general, diversion programs work by allowing law enforcement officials to issue a civil citation for some infractions rather than arresting a child. The child and their parent have to agree to the rules of the diversion program, which could include community service, counseling or restitution.

A 2018 state law requires each judicial circuit in Florida to set up a pre-arrest diversion program. But how each program is set up, which infractions and which individuals would be eligible or sent to such programs, is determined locally.

The fifth-annual report, titled “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Juvenile Prearrest Diversion Efforts 2019,” notes that Florida leads the nation in juvenile pre-arrest diversion and that the use of it in Florida has increased in the past five years.

Yet it also reveals geographical disparities that impose inequities on different kids depending on where they live. The report estimates that nearly 20,000 kids will be arrested for first-time minor violations in the next three years.

One of the report’s key findings: 10 law enforcement agencies were responsible for a third of all first-time arrests in 2018-19 for “common youth misbehavior.” The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office topped that list with 340 arrests. The Tampa Police Department also made the list, with 107 arrests.

By contrast, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office arrested eight juveniles during that same time span, according to the report.

“We’re philosophically committed to pre-arrest diversion because it absolutely works,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday. He said he’s seen recidivism rates of less than 5 percent among those who participated in the program.

Gualtieri said the bulk of kids are not bad, saying his agency is committed to protocols “to ensure that these kids are accurately, fairly evaluated and that we’re doing the right thing by them.”

Compared to several years ago, Hillsborough increased its use of civil citations thanks, in part, to recent expansions of its program.

In April, Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren announced that county leaders had agreed to again expand the number of offenses eligible for juvenile civil citations. Offenses such as disorderly intoxication, family violence and reckless driving were added to the list of infractions eligible for a civil citation, along with offenses that had already been made eligible, such as petty theft and misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Hillsborough does not allow civil citations for certain other misdemeanors, including domestic battery (not including family violence), assault on a school employee or law enforcement officer and driving under the influence.

Hillsborough Chief Assistant State Attorney Kim Hindman said Warren recognized Hillsborough as an outlier on this issue and is committed to utilizing these diversions as much as possible.

“Our office’s role is to protect public safety but also do as much as we can to turn juveniles away from the criminal justice system,” she said.

The Tampa Police Department “consistently looks for proactive ways to work with juveniles and reduce crime,” spokesman Eddy Durkin said in an email Thursday. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office declined comment Thursday, saying it hadn’t yet seen the Caruthers Institute report.