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  1. Opinion

Handling common youth misbehavior in Tampa Bay is a tale of two counties | Column

Diversion programs work, writes the president of a think tank.

If you’re a kid in Pinellas County caught committing first-time common youth misbehavior – such as petit theft, vandalism or marijuana possession – you’re very likely to go into a pre-arrest diversion program intended to keep you out of the school-to-prison pipeline and designed to reduce your risk to re-offend.

But if you’re in Hillsborough County and caught committing the same minor offenses, your odds of getting arrested, sent to jail and later re-offending are rather high. And the arrest will leave you with a criminal misdemeanor record you will need to report on your applications for education, employment and housing.

Youth who are issued pre-arrest diversions – called “juvenile civil citations” -- are screened for their risk to re-offend and if needed, receive mandated mental health counseling and other services. Also, they are required to complete a program involving community service and making amends to victims with letters of apology. All of this costs taxpayers exponentially less than an arrest.

Dewey Caruthers
Dewey Caruthers [ The Caruthers Institute ]

The disparity in approaches is called “justice by geography,” which describes the dramatic differences in how a minor offense, which in previous days resulted in a trip to the principal’s office or a call to parents, is handled by Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Interestingly, Florida leads the nation in using pre-arrest diversions, but allows counties to enact local policies that can lead to justice by geography.

Take, for example, children encountered by law enforcement for first-time petit theft, vandalism or marijuana possession who faced very different consequences based on county. Of the 207 children caught committing first-time petit theft in Hillsborough in fiscal year 2018-19, 71 were arrested, while of the 194 caught doing the same thing in Pinellas, only four were arrested. Of the 29 kids caught committing first-time vandalism in Hillsborough, almost half were arrested, while of the 27 caught in Pinellas none were arrested. And of the 186 kids caught with marijuana in Hillsborough, 36 were arrested, while of the 130 caught in Pinellas only one was arrested. The gaps continue for other offenses like disorderly conduct and fights without injury.

The unequal justice between the two counties also extends to law enforcement agencies, evidenced by the huge divides in arrest rates for children caught committing first-time common youth misbehavior in 2018-19:

· Sheriff’s offices: Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office had a 45 percent first-time arrest rate compared to the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office rate of only 3 percent.

· Police departments: Tampa Police Department 38 percent, Plant City Police Department 46 percent and Temple Terrace Police Department 50 percent, compared to St. Petersburg Police Department 5 percent, Clearwater Police Department 0 percent and Largo Police Department 3 percent.

· School-based: Hillsborough 23 percent, compared to Pinellas 0 percent.

The data is from our fifth annual study “Stepping Up: Florida’s Top Prearrest Diversion Efforts 2019,” which revealed Hillsborough County continues its years-long trend of routinely making first-time arrests for minor offenses while neighbor Pinellas County is a model for the state. Our study also shows Pasco County was a state leader in pre-arrest diversions with a first-time arrest rate of only 15 percent.

Does this mean Pinellas County treats minor offenses more lightly? Not at all: Pinellas simply addresses the offenses more effectively and appropriately. Pre-arrest diversions generate fewer re-offenders at less cost to taxpayers and no harm to youth from a misdemeanor criminal record.

What this means is Hillsborough County spends more money to address common youth misbehavior, only to get worse results.

Dewey Caruthers is president of the Caruthers Institute, a St. Petersburg-based nonpartisan think tank and a state expert in pre-arrest diversions. Read the study.

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