A proposed bill on juvenile arrests is making its way through the subcommittees of the Florida Senate.
Senate Bill 196, which involves juvenile civil citations and similar diversion programs, aims to require law enforcement officers to issue civil citations to eligible minors rather than arresting them.
The bill’s author, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said requiring officers to issue citations or diversion programs, rather than arrests, can be transformative and make positive impacts across the state. Crossing county lines can often result in two entirely different outcomes, she said.
“If you get caught with underage drinking on one side, you’ll get a civil citation. On the other, you’ll get charged a crime, go to jail and that criminal record is there forever,” Flores said. “These are nonviolent, first-time offenders with misdemeanors.”
The list of misdemeanors eligible for civil citations are:
- Possession of alcoholic beverages by a person under age 21
- Criminal Mischief
- Retail and farm theft
- Loitering and prowling
- Affrays and riots
- Disorderly conduct
- Possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis
- Use, possession, manufacture, delivery, transportation, advertisement or retail sale of drug paraphernalia
- Resisting an officer without violence
According to the bill, 60 counties across the state have already implemented a civil citation program or a similar diversion program, such as teen court. Despite this, the bill notes 19,386 juveniles were eligible for a civil citation but only 9,636 of them were issued one for fiscal year 2015 to 2016. The recidivism rate for the juveniles who completed a civil citation program in fiscal year 2014 to 2015 was 3.8 percent.
Some counties, like Alachua and Marion, both have citation and diversion programs.
Ben Tobias, a spokesman for the Gainesville Police Department, said arresting minors is the absolute last resort.
“We have our policy that we will make every effort to give them a citation instead of an arrest,” Tobias said. “Sometimes an arrest could result in a diversion program like teen court. If the officer is going to arrest rather than give a civil citation, they have to get a supervisor’s approval and articulate exactly why they won’t issue a citation.”
While most surrounding counties already have civil citation or diversion programs, Bradford County does not. In fact, Bradford County was one of five counties specifically named in the bill because it lacks juvenile citations.
“It’s another propaganda program setup to cover up crime and to lead to more crime,” said Gordon Smith, Bradford County Sheriff. “I believe in the stick-your-finger-in-the-light-socket theory. If you stick your finger in a light socket, you don’t go back and do it twice.”
Instead of issuing civil citations, minors in Bradford County either go through a diversion program called S.W.E.A.T. (Sheriff Work Ethic and Training program) or are arrested. Smith said he does not believe in issuing civil citations to juveniles because they need to be held accountable for their crimes.
“We came out with tougher punishments on crime. Crime is at an all-time low,” he said. “Why did that happen? Because we were tough on crime and now that the crime has gone down, some people think ‘well, we can do it better.’”
Another major issue Smith has with the proposed legislation is the lack of discretion it allows officers.
“We don’t believe that Tallahassee should be dictating on a case by case basis what is being done,” he said. “The law is taking the discretion out of the officer’s hands and out of the court’s hands and we believe that’s where it needs to be.”
Flores points to officer discretion as one of the main issues with the current system.
“This bill mandates civil citations and doesn’t allow for the discretion that the current law allows. Current law allows them to explain why they didn’t give it,” Flores said. “Thus, leading to only half the eligible kids in the state getting a citation. The new bill requires all kids eligible to get the citation and be referred to a diversion program.”
Smith said he had a message for Flores.
“Tell her this: the only gated community in Bradford County is called jail,” he said. “We don’t have to live in a gated community to feel safe.”
Flores said while some specifics of the bill will be left up to the counties to implement and enforce, the goal of it is all about one thing.
“Give kids a second chance,” she said. “In these cases when they make a mistake, getting a second chance shouldn’t be determined by what part of the state you’re in.”
The bill is currently in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. Flores said she expects the bill to come up for a vote after tweaking parts of it to please those in the Florida House who have some concerns.