When state lawmakers meet to consider sweeping changes to the criminal justice system next month, they also will consider a plan to reduce the number of youth arrests.
The proposal (SB 378) would expand the state’s civil citation program, which gives police officers the option to prescribe community service or intervention programs for young people who commit minor crimes instead of arresting them.
Leading the lobbying for the bill: Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski.
Wenski said he supports efforts to reduce juvenile arrests because the “the consequences are horrendous.”
“Most of these cases don’t really require police intervention,” he told the Herald/Times. “And when the police do intervene, rather than treating [the offenders] as the incarnation of Bonnie and Clyde, it is important to remember that they are kids.”
Under current law, police officers can only issue civil citations to first-time misdemeanor offenders. SB 378 would let officers issue civil citations to young people who have already been in trouble.
It would also enable officers to issue a warning or call a young person’s parent or guardian.
“This would go a long way to give police officers the flexibility to give civil citations, rather than arresting these kids and putting them on a negative track,” said Sen. René García, the Hialeah Republican who is sponsoring the bill.
García said the bill would also help “alleviate the load in the prison system.”
The measure has already found bipartisan support in the upper chamber. Democratic Sens. Dwight Bullard, of Miami, and Audrey Gibson, of Jacksonville, have signed on as co-sponsors. Gibson is the vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
García’s bill does not yet have a companion in the Florida House. There is, however, a similar bill by Reps. Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, and Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, that would require officers to give a civil citation to a first-time juvenile offender (HB 99).
Rouson said reducing the number of youth arrests should be a top priority.
“The civil citation program recognizes that juveniles sometimes make immature decisions and exercise poor judgment,” he said. “They shouldn’t be brought into the criminal justice system and given a record when we can divert them, or use the civil citation as an opening for getting them services.”
Florida has already had considerable success. The number of juvenile misdemeanor offenses statewide dropped by 11 percent from 2012-13 to 2013-14, according to a recent report from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Broward County alone had 1,229 fewer misdemeanor arrests, the report found.
Statewide, the number of arrests for serious offenses has fallen from nearly 122,000 in 2009-10 to 78,000 in 2013-14. That’s a 36 percent drop, according to the agency’s latest statistics.
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christina Daly pointed out that the number of juvenile arrests has been dropping nationwide. But she said civil citations “have certainly contributed” to the state’s downward trend.
“What it allows us to do is intervene and assess those kids early, and provide the opportunity to keep them from going deeper into the system,” Daly said.
The Department of Juvenile Justice has also beefed up its preventive services, as well as mentoring and school-based programs that serve as an alternative to traditional detention centers.
Daly declined to comment on García’s bill, saying she had not yet had a chance to read it.
Wenski, however, said he viewed his advocacy for the bill as “part of our Catholic tradition.”
“We’re about the dignity of the human person,” he said. “That’s why we get involved in abortion issues, but that’s also why we get involved in criminal justice issues.”
When asked if he had been inspired by Pope Francis, who has won praise for his progressive stance on some social issues, Wenski laughed.
“We go to the same church,” he said. “I think we’re drawing our inspiration from the same place.”
Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.