Florida law enforcement officers have the discretion to issue civil citations to minors caught committing misdemeanor crimes, but a newly filed bill would make them mandatory.
Civil citations are an alternative to arrests, detention and enrollment into the state juvenile justice system. They typically involve community service and behavioral counseling.
Studies have shown that civil citations and other pre-arrest diversion programs lead to better long-term outcomes for youths who’ve committed non-serious delinquent acts.
“Without a doubt, arrests close doors to youth for future education and employment,” said Roy Miller, president of The Children’s Campaign.
Research released by the Tallahassee-based advocacy group in September showed that children arrested for minor crimes are twice as likely to re-offend as those issued civil citations and assigned to intervention programs.
Despite the track record, law enforcement exercise discretion unevenly throughout the state. Two minors who commit the same misdemeanor offense in different geographic areas often receive different punishments.
Last year, the statewide youth civil citation rate was only 43 percent, according to the Children’s Campaign’s findings.
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties represent 30 percent of the state’s population, but together comprised less than one-tenth of the state’s citation-eligible arrests.
Duval, Hillsborough and Orange counties were responsible for one-quarter of all youth arrests for common petty crimes last year, yet represent only 18 percent of Florida’s population.
Twenty-one school districts, 13 counties and 150 law enforcement agencies issued no civil citations at all in 2015, and instead relied solely on youth arrests.
“One or more civil citation or similar diversion programs shall be established in each county,” the bill states, each extending to “serve all juveniles who are alleged to have committed a violation of law which would be a misdemeanor offense if committed by an adult.”
The citation and other diversion programs apply as long as a youth suspect admits to committing the alleged offenses and has a clean criminal record.
The qualifying offenses include possession of alcoholic beverages by persons under age 21, battery, criminal mischief, trespassing, retail and farm theft, fighting, rioting, possession of small amounts of cannabis or controlled substances, possession or sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.
According to the proposed legislation, law enforcement officers also would have the discretion to issue civil citations for second and third misdemeanor offenses, and offenses outside of the prescribed list of misdemeanors.
If a minor volunteers to participate, the bill calls for no more than 50 community service hours and the completion of intervention services, which include family counseling, urinalysis monitoring, substance abuse and mental health treatment services.
Failure to complete the intervention programs would cause the initial criminal charge to be referred to a state attorney.
The bill has the potential to impact thousands of minors throughout the state annually and save millions of taxpayer dollars, according to civil citation proponents.
“Increasing the use of civil citations up to 75 percent would enable law and order entities to invest up to $62 million in preventing and addressing felonies and serious crimes, as well as significantly improve life outcomes for nearly 7,000 arrested youth,” Children’s Campaign researcher Dewey Caruthers said.
A previous attempt to mandate juvenile civil citations statewide for first-time offenders died in a legislative committee earlier this year. The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a conservative Republican from Miami.