State Attorney Andrew Warren campaigned on a platform of reforming the criminal justice system in Hillsborough County.
On Thursday, he delivered on that promise, announcing an expanded plan for law enforcement to issue civil citations to first-time offending juveniles who commit nonserious, delinquent acts.
“I have emphasized that to best keep Hillsborough safe, we need to find smart alternatives to arrest and imprisonment for nonviolent, first-time offenders, especially juveniles, so that we can focus our resources on the crimes that pose the greatest threat to our community,” Warren said at a news conference inside the Hillsborough County Courthouse on a plan he is calling the Juvenile Arrest Avoidance Program.
“Our juvenile civil citation program is a common-sense, effective way to make our streets safer, reduce recidivism, and save taxpayer dollars,” he said, adding that “utilizing civil citations for low level offenses allows us to hold juveniles accountable for their actions and keep them on the right path, helping them become law-abiding, contributing members of our community while helping them avoid becoming entrenched in the criminal justice system.”
The program begins August 1.
Misdemeanors such as petty theft, trespassing and misdemeanor marijuana possession will be eligible offenses.
Warren says that the program maintains discretion for the involved officer to issue such citations, but says that the priority will be on writing up a citation and not an arrest unless there is an “identifiable threat to public safety.”
Once issued a civil citation, the juvenile and parent/guardian will meet with a case worker to assess the appropriate sanctions, which may include drug treatment, restitution, community service, specialized classes, supervision, among other possible penalties.
If the juvenile successfully completes the terms and conditions of the sanction, the case is closed without referral to the State Attorney’s office. If he or she doesn’t successfully complete the sanctions, the case will then be referred to the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s office for a charging decision.
Warren has received buy-in from local law enforcement agencies, with representatives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Tampa Police Department, Public Defender’s Office, Administrative Office of the Courts, Clerk of the Court, Agency for Community Treatment Services, Inc., Plant City Police Department, Tampa International Airport Police Department, and Temple Terrace Police Department all in attendance.
Nearly 9,000 young people were arrested last year in Florida instead of being issued a civil citation and released, even though they qualified for the lesser punishment, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
During this spring’s Florida Legislative session, Miami Republican state Senator Anitere Flores was pushing a bill that would mandate officers issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when that juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses. The legislation was strongly opposed by officials with the Florida Police Chiefs Association and the Florida Sheriffs Association, who contended that by mandating officers to issue such a ticket would take away officer discretion to choose between offering a juvenile a civil citation for the offense, or making an arrest.
Flores argued that a lack of uniformity among local sheriffs was inherently unfair, and at one point she compared the data on issuing civil citations between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
94 percent of juvenile offenders were issued civil citations in Pinellas in 2016, whereas in Hillsborough County, that only happened 34 percent of the time.
Warren says he is fully aware of that gap, citing a 2016 report by The Children’s Campaign that concluded that underutilization of civil citations such as in Hillsborough has led to higher costs for taxpayers, ineffective use of resources, and bad outcomes for juveniles.