State Politics

House moves to reduce youth arrests

A Florida House panel on Monday gave its overwhelming support to a proposal seeking to reduce youth arrests by expanding civil citation programs.

“It appears to me that all across this state, people are realizing we should not criminalize, we should not have knee-jerk reactions and make arrests when there are more appropriate consequences,” said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

Civil citation programs, which exist in 59 of Florida’s 67 counties, provide police officers with an alternative to arresting young people.

Under current law, officers can issue a civil citation or prescribe community service to young people who are first-time misdemeanor offenders. The proposal under consideration (HB 99) would extend the program to young people who have already been in trouble.

It would also give officers the option to call the young person’s parent or give a verbal warning instead.

The plan won praise on Monday from law enforcement officials, attorneys, social workers and the state Parent Teacher Association.

“Many of us have programs in our counties that have existed for a long time and are very successful,” said Nancy Daniels, the public defender for Florida's Second Judicial Circuit. “They have very low recidivism rates.”

But a spokeswoman for the Florida Retail Federation cautioned that the measure might encourage the leaders of retail theft rings to recruit young adults.

“We support the goals of this bill,” lobbyist Samantha Padgett said. “People should not have to pay the rest of their lives for mistakes they made when they were juveniles.... Our concern with this bill rests with the fact that it gives unlimited opportunity to participate in the civil citation program.”

Rouson, who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, said he would work with representatives from the retail industry to address their concerns.

Only one member of the panel voted against the proposal: Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando.

“You can’t have a system that allows kids to never have consequences,” Eisnaugle said. “At some point, there’s got to be an end to the civil citation program.”

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, however, said the bill would encourage self-sufficiency. Trujillo noted that a criminal record often follows young people into adulthood.

“Considering that these are misdemeanor offenses, the punishment does not fit the crime,” the Miami Republican said.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate had considered stronger language that would have required each county to have a civil citation program. But they backed off the idea at the urging of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Last week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told a Senate panel that some counties prefer diversion programs like teen courts.

“I’m a big believer that law enforcement needs to retain discretion,” he said.

The sheriffs association is otherwise supportive of the bill, and is working with the sponsors to make improvements moving forward.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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