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House advances juvenile justice bill, adding adult diversion program

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Over the past month, juvenile justice bills moving through the Florida Legislature this spring have veered off in different directions.

On Thursday, the House version (HB 205), sponsored by Seminole Republican Larry Ahern, changed again in the House Judiciary Committee.

Ahern’s bill would expunge the arrests of juveniles for certain first-time misdemeanor crimes. That differs significantly from its Senate companion. Miami Republican Anitere Flores bill (SB 196) would mandate civil citations to juveniles for a number of first-time misdemeanors.

Longwood Republican Scott Plakon‘s amendment to HB 205 would allow adults arrested for certain crimes to go into a pre-arrest diversion program.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who began a pre-arrest diversion program in October, gave the concept a boost. Since then, more than 800 people have participated, and more than 400 have successfully completed a program — performing over 11,000 hours of community service.

“It’s making a difference, they’re completing the program and they’re getting the exact same sanction — community service and restitution — and importantly, they’re not getting that criminal record,” Gualtieri said.

That insertion upset Venice Republican Julio Gonzalez, who for more than a year had been working on the legislation to address juveniles. He said a number of issues regarding the juvenile component of the bill remain unresolved.

Those issues were now “tainted” by the discussion over adults, Gonzalez argued.

“It opens up a completely separate discussion that I don’t think is conducive to finding out what the best solution is for children,” he said.

Ben Diamond disagreed, citing Gualtieri’s statistics.

“The numbers do show a tremendous success story in our community in Pinellas County,” the St. Petersburg Democrat said.

Fort Myers Republican Heather Fitzenhagen also supports the bill but expressed concerns over adding adults to the legislation.

“I’m going to take a look at it before it gets to the floor,” she said, “and make sure I have a comfort level with those two things being intertwined.”

Several speakers once again called on Ahern to amend the bill back to its original language, which would mandate diversion for juveniles arrested for certain offenses, marrying it to the Senate bill. Some contended that Ahern’s bill could harm those who might want to join the armed services.

Alex Kerr of the Department of Military Affairs confirmed to the committee that the military does ask questions about civil citation and even traffic tickets. But waivers are offered in those circumstances, he said, depending on the nature of the offense.

Gualtieri supports the House version and is dead against the Senate proposal. It’s a “bad thing” to take away the discretion of law enforcement to choose whether or not to arrest a youth who commits a crime, he said.

“Under mandatory civil citation, you take a kid with drug paraphernalia, with a crack pipe and a heroin syringe. That’s paraphernalia. Mandatory civil citation. No discretion,” the sheriff explained. “And so by eliminating that law enforcement discretion, it puts law enforcement in a situation where we can’t act to affect good public safety.”

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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