Civil citations are being used as a diversion effort to keep nonviolent youthful offenders out of the juvenile justice system. Photo credit: Shannon Nickinson
TALLAHASSEE — Members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday called for passage of a proposal that would require law enforcement officers to issue civil citations to juveniles for some offenses rather than making arrests.
But the proposal faces opposition from prosecutors and law enforcement groups. Also, the chairman of a key House committee said he hasn't decided whether to hear it.
The proposal (SB 408 and HB 7085) would create a list of first-time misdemeanors — such as disorderly conduct and possession of alcohol or marijuana — that in most cases would lead to civil citations instead of arrests. Juveniles would be diverted to perform community service and participate in intervention programs appropriate to their offenses.
Civil citations have been used in Escambia County since 2013.
A study released in July showed the program statewide reduced recidivism and save the state money over the cost of incarcerating juveniles. A 2011 report by the Florida TaxWatch Center for Smart Justice put taxpayer savings from the use of civil citations at $44 million to $139 million annually.
"If you are a young man, and you make a youthful indiscretion or a youthful mistake, this gives an opportunity for you to have what we call restorative justice," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D- Miami Gardens. "It will allow them to have an opportunity to learn from their mistake and not have a problem getting a job."
Rep. Ed Narain, a Tampa Democrat and chairman of the black caucus, described the proposal as an "economic issue."
"We have police officers who don't want to arrest our juveniles," Narain said. "They want to have that opportunity to have that conversation … to put them in a situation where later on in life, their entire careers are not potentially ruined."
The House bill, filed by Criminal Justice Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, easily passed the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee in a 12-1 vote last week. It still needs to get through the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Jacksonville Republican Charles McBurney, said he is still weighing options.
The Senate version, filed by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge narrowly passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in a 3-2 vote Tuesday. It now heads to the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, whose Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel — a Hollywood Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill — said it will get a hearing.
"These nonviolent behaviors should not limit opportunities for our youngsters, who often in their teen years do things that they regret later on," Sobel said.
But a number of state attorneys and leaders of law-enforcement agencies oppose the proposal on the grounds that it would remove officers' discretion. They also said they support the civil citation programs already up and running in 61 of Florida's 67 counties.
"We do have civil citations," said Catherine Vogel, the state attorney for Monroe County. "We have teen court. We have all kinds of diversion programs for juveniles already in place."
R.J. Larizza, the state attorney in Volusia, Putnam, Flagler and St. Johns counties, pointed to the rapid growth of the civil citation programs. Five years ago, just seven counties had them. What's more, he said, lawmakers last year allowed officers to give as many as two civil citations to the same juveniles.
"It's been my experience that if kids continue to break the law, after two opportunities through diversion programs that take into consideration their tender age and their lack of record, they wind up committing again and again," Larizza said. "So I think taking discretion away from the law enforcement officers is a mistake."
The Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association oppose the bill for the same reason.
The proposal has a powerful supporter in Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who is slated to become Senate president after the November elections. During a speech when he was designated as the next president, Negron said he intends to make a priority of juvenile-justice reform. He then told the story of a water-balloon-throwing incident when he was 13 or 14 in which an officer whose vehicle was splattered took him to his father rather than to juvenile detention.
"Let's not criminalize adolescence," Negron said Wednesday, referring to that speech. "But at the same time --- and I also said this --- we're not going to tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people."
As to the question of taking away officers' discretion, Negron said the Senate bill approved Tuesday in the Criminal Justice Committee provides alternatives that allow for an arrest.
"I think they have discretion, but if they want to do something other than a citation, they have to go to a supervisor and get additional authority," Negron said. "I'm open to how we increase the use of citations for behavior that doesn't cross the line into serious criminal misconduct."