Nonviolent juvenile offenders deserve opportunities to wipe the slate clean and commit to living as law-abiding adults. A proposal in the Florida Senate would expand state law to offer repeat juvenile offenders amnesty for subsequent nonviolent offenses. This approach, paired with services to help juvenile offenders improve their lives, is a sound prescription for troubled youth.
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, has filed a bill (SB 378) that would allow local law enforcement officers to use the civil citation program to absolve juveniles of second and subsequent minor infractions. Current law makes the citation program an option for law enforcement officers that only applies to first offenses. The bill also would empower officers to require offenders' participation in a diversion program and issue a simple warning or inform parents or guardians of infractions rather than cart misbehaving children off to jail. In exceptional instances, the bill provides for a juvenile offender's arrest for a first-time misdemeanor if the officer can provide written documentation about why the incarceration would benefit public safety. A similar bill (HB 99) is co-sponsored by Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. It would require law enforcement to issue a civil citation for first-time misdemeanor offenses.
The civil citation proposals dovetail with national efforts to reduce the number of juveniles who are incarcerated for minor offenses ranging from disorderly conduct to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Studies show that civil citation programs keep juveniles out of the court system and greatly reduce their likelihood of committing new crimes. They also help juveniles avoid criminal records that can make it more difficult to secure employment, housing or bank loans. Locally, law enforcement agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have long run civil citation programs. In St. Petersburg, the City Council voted last fall to create a youth diversion program but the launch has been delayed as the details are worked out.
Expanding Florida's civil citation law to include forgiveness for repeat violations does not let juvenile offenders off the hook. Instead, the proposed changes would give officers more flexibility to deal with the root problems facing at-risk youth and still require young people to take responsibility for their actions.
State law now requires civil citation program participants to complete up to 50 hours of community service and participate in a variety of intervention services. Combined with the new proposal, those elements offer youth guidance and the opportunity to learn from foolish mistakes, rather than ushering them into a juvenile justice system that too often becomes a gateway to a life of crime as an adult.