Tampa Bay Times

Giving a second chance to young first offenders

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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.

 ?? CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald file photo ?? Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties lead the state in keeping youth offenders out of the school-to-prison cycle but, in many parts of the state, law enforcemen­t continues to arrest kids eligible for diversion programs and that’s costing taxpayers.
CARL JUSTE | Miami Herald file photo Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties lead the state in keeping youth offenders out of the school-to-prison cycle but, in many parts of the state, law enforcemen­t continues to arrest kids eligible for diversion programs and that’s costing taxpayers.

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