Florida

Faith-based leaders unite Republicans and Democrats to reduce youth arrests

James Myles of St. Petersburg is the executive director of Bethel Community Foundation Inc., CINS FINS Truancy Intervention Program Services. He poses outside of the Bethel Community Baptist Church.
James Myles of St. Petersburg is the executive director of Bethel Community Foundation Inc., CINS FINS Truancy Intervention Program Services. He poses outside of the Bethel Community Baptist Church. Tampa Bay Times

James Myles is more comfortable mentoring troubled teenagers in St. Petersburg than glad-handing lawmakers in the Florida Capitol.

Yet that’s where he found himself earlier this year.

Myles, an elder at Bethel Community Baptist Church and director of its truancy intervention program, was part of a loose-knit coalition of activists, faith-based leaders and service providers who traveled to Tallahassee to change the way Florida law treats juvenile offenders. They were pushing for an expansion of civil citations, an alternative to arrest.

Their bill was among 200 proposals that made it to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk — no small accomplishment in a year that saw the House adjourn early because of a tense budget standoff. The issue didn’t attract much attention, but it prompted an emotional and often divisive debate. Powerful business interests fought against an early version of the proposal. And tough-on-crime conservatives tried to water it down.

For the advocates, it was an eye-opening and exhausting look into the complicated inner-workings of state government.

“We’re not lobbyists,” Myles said after the 60-day legislative session came to an end earlier this month. “We just knew this makes sense. It was something our lawmakers couldn’t say ‘no’ to.”

EARLY INTERVENTION

Florida law has long allowed police officers to issue civil citations to young people who are first-time offenders. The citation itself is akin to a traffic ticket. The teenagers must pay restitution, perform community service or receive counseling services. But they are not left with a criminal record, which could derail future opportunities for jobs, scholarships or college admission.

The hope: young people will learn from the experience and avoid future run-ins with the law.

“What it allows us to do is to intervene and assess that youth early, and to provide the opportunity to keep those kids from going deeper into the system,” Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly said.

A decade ago, most of Florida’s civil citation programs existed in affluent communities. That troubled Wansley Walters, who was then director of the Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Department. Her office teamed up with the Miami-Dade schools police department and the state attorney’s office to launch a countywide initiative. The program quickly led to a 30 percent drop in youth arrests, according to published reports.

When Walters was tapped to lead the state Department of Juvenile Justice in 2011, she helped pass legislation to spread the concept across the state. It wasn’t an easy sell in some communities, Walters recalled. But law enforcement agencies in 59 of Florida’s 67 counties eventually came on board. 

Scores of agencies in Florida now work with young people who have received civil citations, including the PACE Center for Girls Broward. The program seeks to empower its young participants, Executive Director Aggie Pappas said. The girls commit to at least 45 days of gender-specific group therapy, individual therapy and case management. Counselors monitor their grades and communicate regularly with their families.

“We find out sometimes that our girls have experienced something like sexual abuse and never told anybody — and that’s the real reason they are acting out,” Pappas said. “That would never happen if they had been processed in the criminal justice system.”

The program gets results. About 72 percent of the young women who start the program complete it, according to most recent figures from the Children’s Services Council of Broward County, which provides some of the funding. And in 2012, none of the participants had another offense in the three to 12 months following the program.

JUVENILE ARRESTS DECLINE

Statewide, the number of delinquency arrests has fallen from about 110,000 before the 2011 law to just under 81,000 — a decline of about 26 percent.

But faith-based leaders like Myles — whose truancy intervention program is a partnership among the Pinellas School Board, the St. Petersburg Police Department, the county Juvenile Welfare Board and the Bethel Community Foundation — believed Florida could do better.

Last year, he and several other leaders began brainstorming ways to reduce the number of youth arrests. They batted around a number of ideas before settling on one in particular: Instead of allowing police officers to issue civil citations for first-time juvenile offenses, they wanted Florida law to require it.

“Officers can still chose to arrest,” Myles said. “We wanted that [discretion] taken away.”

What they didn’t realize: state Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, had tried pitching that very idea in 2013 and 2014. Her bills had gone nowhere both years, due mostly to opposition from law enforcement agencies and state attorneys who were unwilling to relinquish discretion.

This year, lawmakers tried a different strategy.

Clarke-Reed worked with Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who had also been contacted by the faith-based leaders. The two lawmakers began championing a proposal to let young people receive more than one civil citation before being arrested (HB 99). The new language mirrored a Senate bill sponsored by influential Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, that had seemed likely to find support (SB 378).

Both proposals started moving early in the session.

It was an encouraging sign for the faith-based and community leaders. Many drove to Tallahassee to meet with lawmakers and testify before legislative committees.

“Last year, in the state of Florida, there were 13,000 youth who were arrested but did not receive civil citations,” Myles told a Senate panel in March. “The majority of these children were arrested for things like cursing a teacher in school, disorderly conduct, or stealing a T-shirt from a store. These youth now have criminal records. These records will keep them from getting college scholarships, from getting jobs, and maybe even from getting into the military.”

Still, there were obstacles.

RETAILERS OBJECT

The Florida Retail Federation argued that giving young people an unlimited number of civil citations would cause retail theft rings to recruit teens. As a compromise, sponsors of both the House and Senate bills agreed to cap the number of civil citations a young person could receive at three.

“We had to have a lot of discussions behind the scenes with representatives who had issues with it,” Rouson said. “We also had to assuage law enforcement that they would still have professional discretion.”

Just before the bill was scheduled for a final vote in the House, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, tried to further limit the number of civil citations.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result,” Gaetz said. “Let’s try a new strategy after this other one has failed twice.”

In a rare moment of discord among House Republicans, some spoke against the proposed changes.

“We should leave the discretion with the law enforcement officers and allow this opportunity to remediate the child’s behavior before it becomes a problem,” Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said.

Gaetz’s amendment failed in a close vote.

The bill itself had no trouble winning support in the House or Senate. It wasn’t exactly what Myles had envisioned, he later conceded.

“But it was better than coming out of the session with nothing, no expansion for civil citations,” he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com. 

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