Finally. A new generation of state legislators from Miami-Dade County wants to inject some sanity into the madness of “get-tough-on-crime” measures that have damaged young lives for almost 20 years.
In a meeting this week with the Editorial Board, state Reps. Erik Fresen and José Javier Rodríguez and Sens. Oscar Braynon II, Gwen Margolis and Anitere Flores — she is the delegation’s thoughtful chair — spoke of their commitment to bringing juvenile-justice legislation back in line with the reality of young people’s lives, and that of the state of Florida’s fiscal responsibility.
They are smart enough to recognize that after jailing young nonviolent offenders, then releasing them with an arrest on their records — thwarting their ability to follow a straight and narrow path — the costs in human potential and in state treasure can be far higher than when they are given the chance to pivot away from crime at the outset.
These legislators have like-minded colleagues in state Sen. Rene Garcia, also from Miami-Dade, and state Rep. Mia Jones, of Jacksonville.
Sen. Garcia, a Republican, has filed SB 378: “Authorizing a law-enforcement officer to issue a warning to a juvenile who admits having committed a misdemeanor or to inform the child’s parent or guardian of the child’s infraction; requiring a law-enforcement officer who does not exercise one of these options to issue a civil citation or require participation in a similar diversion program; providing that, in exceptional situations, a law-enforcement officer may arrest a first-time misdemeanor offender in the interest of protecting public safety, etc.”
The bottom line is that some kids would be given a second chance. “The bill would have the state do what Dade does — give civil citations for first-time misdemeanors, nonviolent, minor infractions,” said Sen. Braynon. “The goal is not to have a child have a record.”
It’s a worthy and life-changing initiative. Too many young people who have wanted to move past sinking deeper into the juvenile-justice system — then plummeting into the adult system — have been stymied when they have tried to get a job, join the military or go to college. When so thwarted, what’s the likely alternative?
Sen. Garcia’s proposal works hand-in-glove with another good idea, this in a bill introduced by Rep. Jones. She and Arthenia Joyner, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, say that, depending on the nature of the crime, if juveniles who are convicted complete their sentences and probation and pay any fines levied, their records should be automatically expunged.
Right now, Rep. Jones told the Editorial Board, they have to wait until they are 24 to have their records expunged. She, too, cites how a stained record hovers over their attempts to become a law-abiding member of society.
“It’s a long time between 18 and 24. … We want to give them a fresh start as adults so that poor decisions don’t continue to impact them,” Rep. Jones said. “With intervention, we want to give everybody that opportunity.”
More legislators should sign onto these sensible initiatives, as well as onto Rep. Fresen’s desire to take a harder look at minimum-mandatory sentencing laws, with which the state ties judges’ hands in meting out punishment, taking away their discretion.
For too long, Florida has stinted juvenile diversion in favor of building more prisons. Credit these lawmakers with working to turn that around. Finally.