TAMPA — Hillsborough officials say the statistics speak for themselves: The county’s juvenile citation program is working. Now the program is being tweaked to allow more children to participate, getting the chance to avoid an arrest that could haunt them the rest of their lives.
Parental consent is no longer required for children to participate in the Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program, officials announced Thursday.
Also new is a requirement for deputies and police officers considering the arrest of a child younger than 12 to discuss with a supervisor other options. Preference must be given to the citation program.
“Every young person deserves a chance to change their past and move in the right direction without having to face long-term consequences,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference Thursday at the Falkenburg Road Jail. “We are very optimistic that these changes will reduce barriers and increase access to this highly successful program.”
The changes are the latest to a juvenile diversion program that has been in place for more than a decade but has been expanded in the last few years.
A 2016 report compiled by the Children’s Campaign and other child advocacy groups reported that Hillsborough lagged behind its neighboring Tampa Bay area counties in its use of juvenile civil citations. In 2017, newly-elected Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren announced an agreement between local law enforcement agencies and the courts that expanded the use of citations.
At the time, 13 offenses were deemed ineligible for consideration for the program. Last year, Warren, Chronister and Hillsborough’s Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta announced an updated agreement with local law enforcement agencies that would pare that down to five ineligible offenses, where it remains today.
Those ineligible offenses are domestic battery (not including family violence), assault on a school employee or law enforcement officer, violation of an injunction, driving under the influence and racing.
In the program, children who receive the citations must agree to accept responsibility for the crime and enter a diversion program, which can include community service or restitution. They undergo assessments to allow authorities to create a program with services tailored to their risks and needs.
But some kids who could have benefited from the program were denied because of problems getting consent from their parents, officials said.
“Previously some children were not afforded the opportunity to participate because we were unable to reach their parent or, for whatever reason, their parent was not committed to the program, which is simply not fair,” Chronister said.
Requiring deputies and officers to consult with a supervisor and seek input from school personnel when incidents happen on campus will help ensure they see “the big picture" as they decide whether to arrest someone younger than 12, Chronister said.
“Getting a second opinion takes minutes and not doing so could have a lifetime of repercussions in the form of a criminal record,” he said.
Deputies and police officers who believe there are immediate community safety concerns based on the nature and circumstances of an offense can still make an arrest in lieu of a civil citation.
Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt, who also spoke at the news conference, said the changes address problems with the program that her office has flagged as they represent young clients.
“The changes you see being made today are because we have studied this program and everybody behind me has kept their promise that after a year at looking at what the obstacles were, we would address them,” Holt said. “Every single one of those obstacles has been addressed by the changes you see today.”
Holt said parents often are not able to answer their phones from officials seeking permission to enroll their children in the program.
“Believe it or not, there are employers who don’t allow you to have cell phones, don’t allow you to answer cell phones, during the day,” Holt said. “So if your child gets in trouble, you’re not able to be part of the decision that’s being made.”
Officials point to data that shows program participants have low recidivism rates.
From 2017 to 2018, officials tracked 535 juveniles who successfully completed the program. A year later, 9 percent of the juveniles who had received a citation in the community had been arrested, a Sheriff’s Office news release said. The recidivism rate for the school citation cases was 10 percent.
The program has also helped bring down the number of bookings at the Juvenile Assessment Center, from 8,433 in 2010 to 3,528 last year, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Warren said an average of 750 children are now participating in the program each year.
“This group is committed to making sure that we continue to expand the program and that it succeeds because we’re motivated by one single and powerful idea," Warren said. "A juvenile’s first interaction with the criminal justice system should be his last.”