Although Andrew Warren was considered a serious underdog in his race against Mark Ober for Hillsborough County’s State Attorney last year, he had plenty of ammunition to run in a changing social environment.
Both the right and left has coalesced in recent years when it comes to believing in serious criminal justice reform, and independent groups had reported that Hillsborough was an outlier when it came to administering the death penalty and in arresting juveniles for possession of marijuana, vs. offering civil citations. Warren was one of a number of reform-oriented candidates who won prosecutorial races in major jurisdictions around the nation in 2016.
At the Tampa Tiger Bay Club’s Friday meeting at the Ferguson Law Center downtown, the 40-year-old former federal prosecutor started the conversation by saying that now is the time to act on making serious reform on juvenile justice.
“It starts with avoiding sending nonviolent, juvenile first-time juvenile down the spiral of the criminal justice system,” he said. “We need to avoid saddling them with arrest and conviction records that make it harder for them in the long run for them to become taxpaying law abiding contributing members of society.”
He said that also meant being tough on “serial recidivists” and holding people accountable. But he said, it has to be done in an intelligent and smart fashion, and “not promote the revolving door of criminal justice, but rather promotes public safety.”
Although Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt has been in office since 1992, she said she felt revitalized in her job because of Warren’s election.
“If you think that I’m enthusiastic to continue as the public defender, it’s because I see an opportunity in this community to work together with the state attorney’s office and with law enforcement to truly make a change in this community and in the lives of our youth that in the last 20 years really hadn’t had that opportunity,” she said.
One of the hottest criminal justice reform bills pending in the Legislature this year is from Sen. Anitere Flores. The Miami Republican sponsored a bill calling for mandatory civil citations across the state for first-time juvenile misdemeanors in 11 different categories.
Holt said she is fully behind it, saying that a program for diversion or civil citation has been in existence for two decades in Florida, yet still has not been fully adopted statewide.
“For those of you who have ever been even anywhere around the criminal justice system, it is a very slippery slope. It is easy to get in, it is very hard to get out,” Holt said, adding that experienced lawyers themselves have a hard time sometimes navigating the system, much less a young teenager.
“How can you ask a young child when they are being confronted by the criminal justice system and its challenges, how can you expect them to be successful?” she asked. “You cannot. Many adults cannot be successful. Not because they don’t want to. But because it’s challenging.”
The participants also included Hillsborough County Chief Judge Ron Ficcarrota and Hillsborough County Sheriff Col. Donna Lusczkinsky.
When asked by a Tiger Bay audience member about the issue of implicit racial bias, all four speakers spoke up.
Warren said that there were some “significant distinctions and differences and biases” in how the State Attorney’s office was prosecuting white juvenile offenders vs. minority juvenile offenders from 2008-2013, and so he began going back into those direct files after taking office in January to determine to identify why that was the case.
He admitted that he hasn’t been able to identify that problem just yet.
Lusczkinsky said that the Sheriffs Department give annual training to deputies on multicultural diversity and bias based profiling annually.
“We want to make sure our deputies are educated and they understand the challenges that go with across the different economic areas,” she said.
Ficcarrota said judges in Hillsborough County are also required to take a diversity course. “I think what would help is if we would get a more diverse bench. That would be a big step,” he said. “I think its important that when a juvenile looks at that bench and sees a face that looks like his or hers., that needs to happen,” he said, adding that means more people of color applying for judgeships, and the governor appointing a more diverse bench.
Mike Pheneger with the ACLU expressed disappointment that the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office had been reluctant to decriminalize marijuana possession. The County was a late entrant in that program, creating the Delinquent Act Citation Pilot Program (DAC Pilot Program) last summer. It’s an alternative to an arrest and a possible criminal record for juveniles found to be in possession of 20 grams or less of cannabis, or possession of drug paraphernalia.
Lusczkinsky responded that the Department didn’t believe that was an adequate process and system in place “to make sure that the children would get the service we needed.”
Holt didn’t address the Sheriff Department’s delay in enacting that program, but said that that are now “flat to the mat on it” in terms of issuing out civil citations vs. arrests now.
Warren said that he was taking about the need to expand civil citations to include misdemeanor possession for juveniles from the first week of his campaign, and was happy about the coincidence of the sheriffs department adopting the program after he said he began taking about it.
He also mentioned the statistics often mentioned by Flores when talking about the need for statewide mandatory civil citations for juveniles on various first-time nonviolent offenses.
While Pinellas County uses civil citations in over 90 percent of the time, Hillsborough’s numbers have been in the 30 percentile range.