1. Opinion

Editorial: Juvenile diversion programs work, so make them Florida-wide

Juvenile diversion programs are a proven way to help kids who commit minor offenses get steered back on the right path. Yet low participation in many Florida counties — Hillsborough, in particular — means thousands of teens are being denied the chance to avoid a criminal record over a youthful mistake. The Legislature, which has so far failed to pass a bill creating a statewide system, should not let another year go by without correcting this injustice.

Diversion programs are not a new concept. Instead of arrest and prosecution, juveniles caught in low-level, nonviolent offenses are given a civil citation and required to pay restitution, perform community service, receive counseling or substance abuse treatment, or some combination of those things. Those who successfully complete the program have their charges dropped; those who don't face prosecution. The programs are not open to violent or habitual offenders. They apply to misdemeanors such as petty theft and trespassing.

The fiscal benefits are demonstrable. Civil diversion saves taxpayer money because it requires fewer law enforcement resources and cuts down on recidivism. According to an annual study by the Caruthers Institute think tank, the state saved between $56 million and $176 million over three years by diverting young offenders into civil citation programs.

The kids are better off too. Diversion programs allow them to avoid a permanent mark on their record that can be an obstacle to employment, education and housing, and the programs have been shown to deter youth from getting in trouble again. The problem is that not enough jurisdictions in Florida have bought in.

The study gave the state an overall F grade for low participation. Pinellas is the shining exception, with 94 percent of kids caught in minor crimes receiving a civil citation. But in Hillsborough County, the rate was 36 percent. Pasco: 68 percent. Hernando: 61 percent. Hillsborough has had a civil citation program on the books for years but has used it too conservatively. On Aug. 1, State Attorney Andrew Warren launched a more robust program that should improve outcomes for kids in that county. But many parts of Florida still lag, which is why a state law is needed to bring uniformity.

Legislators came close last year, deadlocking over whether diversion should be mandatory for certain offenses or if officers should maintain some discretion. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has adequately addressed this concern. Pinellas deputies have the choice to arrest, say, a kid who is causing a disturbance and needs to be removed from a scene. But at the juvenile assessment center, program staff can assess the case and still send the kid to diversion. Some counties handle the process in reverse, arresting kids and then dropping the charges once community service and other conditions are met. Any new legislation should ensure that the record created by such an arrest is automatically expunged.

Locking up kids for minor crimes is a failed formula whose time has long passed. With counties like Pinellas showing a better way, Florida needs a framework that puts kids on a constructive path through the use of civil diversion instead of criminal prosecution. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, worked with Gualtieri on the bill that failed this year. He should bring it back for the session beginning in January, and lawmakers should overcome their disagreements about the details to finally reach the noncontroversial goal of helping nonviolent juvenile offenders avoid a criminal record.