Tampa Bay Times
Giving a second chance to young first offenders
Hillsborough County has made significant strides in the last few years sending juveniles who commit minor crimes to diversion programs instead of jail. But Hillsborough still leads the state in arresting the most kids for first-time misdemeanor offenses, according to a recent study. Following the example of other Florida counties, law enforcement leaders can take immediate steps to reduce that arrest rate and give more kids a second chance.
Hillsborough’s Juvenile Arrest Avoidance program has been in place for more than a decade, but long drew criticism for being under-utilized. A 2016 report by the Children’s Campaign found that Hillsborough used civil citations in only 32% of eligible cases, while neighboring Pinellas issued citations 82% of the time. The numbers started improving after the 2016 election of State Attorney Andrew Warren, who vowed to increase the use of civil citations and got buy-in from Sheriff Chad Chronister, Public Defender Julianne Holt and Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta.
Since then, juvenile arrests have dropped and these leaders have worked to continually improve the program. A list of 13 offenses deemed ineligible for citations has been whittled to five, and a parental consent requirement for participating in the program was dropped. That had excluded some kids when their parents were not reachable. Officials also made it a requirement that any officer considering arresting a child younger than 12 consult a supervisor. These are meaningful improvements that reflect a commitment to helping kids.
But more work is needed, and that’s clear from the numbers: Last year, Hillsborough recorded nearly 400 juvenile arrests for first-time minor offenses, according to the Caruthers Institute, which studies juvenile justice and advocates reforms. By contrast, Miami-Dade made 27 such arrests. Pinellas made eight. There’s no reason Hillsborough should be so vastly outpacing other areas of Florida in putting kids in jail.
Smart solutions are at the ready. Pinellas gives every juvenile arrest a second look by a diversion officer, who reviews each case for eligibility. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri welcomes that scrutiny of his deputies to ensure that no kid who could go to diversion instead of detention gets overlooked. Warren told the Times that 156 cases came to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office last year that met the criteria for the diversion program, which demonstrates a clear need for that secondary review.
Holt smartly suggested making the diversion program mandatory for all first-time misdemeanor offenses and said she favors eliminating the ineligible offenses. Chronister, for his part, appears open-minded if noncommittal about further reforms. But Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan referred to the program as “letting people off the hook.” That misses the point when you’re talking about kids, who shouldn’t be dogged for life by a bad decision made as a teenager.
And the program is no free pass. Kids must accept responsibility for their actions and commit to making amends through restitution or community service. They go through an assessment of their risks and needs and are given social services. If they fail to meet the requirements of their individual program or get arrested again, they face prosecution. That holistic approach to juvenile justice is far superior to funneling a teenager into the prison pipeline for shoplifting.
Hillsborough County is moving in the right direction in reducing arrests of young people for minor offenses and steering more kids into diversion programs. But 397 first-time misdemeanor juvenile arrests in one year is too many. Law enforcement leaders need only look at what’s working in other counties to improve the chance of success for Hillsborough County’s most at-risk kids.