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Appropriations Committee approves bill removing police ‘discretion tool’ in first-time cases with juveniles

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A bill introduced and passed unanimously in the Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice Wednesday would take away tool long since considered useful, but increasingly controversial – the power of discretion.

The measure – SB 196 — could drastically limit what those in the policing community could do when responding to calls involving minors, detractors at the meeting — which included representatives from the law enforcement associations — argued, as the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anitere Flores looked on.

“We cannot agree to a bill that takes away from law enforcement discretion,” Matt Dunagan, executive director of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said. “The sheriff’s do support diversion programs, but if an (ordinance or law) has been broken, a citation must be issued.”

Shane Bennet, head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, echoed Dunagan’s concerns, also adding his organization supported the civil citations program, which makes attempts from criminalizing charges against offenders who are still minors.

The bill also would create diversion programs for first-time offenders, avoiding a criminal record, which could prevent them from joining the military or qualifying for a range of jobs.

When young people commit serious crimes, there needs to be an appropriate legal penalty. However, there are many situations where youth are displaying a lack of judgment and maturity, rather than serious criminal behavior,” said President Pro Tempore Flores. “This legislation ensures that we utilize other avenues that correct inappropriate behavior without stigmatizing our youth with a criminal record that could impact their future education and career opportunities.”

More than 9,000 minors were arrested in Florida in 2016. Disparities between counties can confound officials, too, as Flores noted, citing that in Pinellas County, where diversion programs have been in place for years, 94 percent of eligible juveniles received civil citations.

“But drive across the bridge into Hillsborough County — it’s only one-third, or 36 percent,” she said.

Senate Bill 196 requires a law enforcement officer to issue a civil citation or require the juvenile’s participation in a diversion program when the juvenile admits to committing certain first-time misdemeanor offenses including: possession of alcoholic beverages, criminal mischief, trespass, and disorderly conduct, among others.

The legislation also mandates the policing community to provide written documentation articulating why an arrest is warranted when he or she has the discretion to issue a civil citation, but instead chooses to arrest the juvenile.

According to The Tampa Bay Times, 52 percent of minors got civil citations throughout the state in 2016.

“If law enforcement had been better at adopting these programs early on, but the truth is, we put too many juveniles in jail, and Florida lags behind,” Sen. Jeff Clemens said bluntly. “It’s time we bring Florida to parity with the rest of the nation.”

Flores closed the bill’s discussion before the unanimous vote favoring the legislation.

“I think training officers is a great idea, but it’s not enough,” she said. “The bill requires better and improved reporting. You know, it’s a little uneasy when you go against what law enforcement says … but we all have to get to a comfortable place where we can talk about it.”

After the committee had closed, Senate President Joe Negron weighed in with a statement.

“In too many cases, we have become a society where law enforcement officers are brought in to referee the day-to-day challenges of raising children,”  Negron said. The Stuart Republican has made juvenile justice reform a top priority of his two-year term.

“This legislation strikes an appropriate balance between public safety and decriminalizing the mistakes of adolescents.”

Separately, the commissioner for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement gave a presentation asking for the establishment of a state counterterrorism force on par with that with the FBI.

Dean Register spoke to the committee members, asking for 46 new positions and $6.4 million to run it annually.

He justified it by citing several of the 9/11 hijackers received their flight training in Florida.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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